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Exist Yesterday.

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1936: Pyotr Leshchenko


This week I'm thinking about "Serdtse," a Russian tango sung by Pyotr Leschenko in 1936, and one of the enduring classics of Soviet-era romanticism.

Although the tango is one of the great cultural heritages of Argentina, by the mid-1930s it was, outside of Argentina, considered a standard form of popular music, composed and sung by everybody who considered themselves a modern. Within Argentina, a song like this might not have been considered a proper tango at all, but a pop bastardization of the form: the tango rhythm is scarcely more than a suggestion, the violin owes less to porteño (Buenos Aires) than to tzigane (European Roma) traditions, and there's an instrumental break which sounds for all the world like an eruption of Hawaiian slack-key guitar into a cosmopolitan Eastern European record.

Leshchenko, who had been born into poverty in the Ukraine and grown up in Russian Bessarabia, found himself in Romania after the border changed following World War I. He worked up a singing-and-dancing act, becoming popular among the White Russian emigrés in Bucharest, which he legally was not (he always considered himself a Russian, though the Soviets, who considered his repertoire counter-revolutionary, disagreed). A crooner in the popular international style, he sang traditional Russian romances as well as modern tunes like this one, which had actually originated under perfectly acceptable Party circumstances.

Composed by Isaak Dunayevsky, one of the greatest popular composers of the Soviet era, with lyrics by Vasily Lebedev-Kumach, a satirical poet and lyricist, it was written for the hit 1934 Soviet comedy film Весёлые ребята (Jolly Fellows) with the title "Как много девушек хороших" (Such a lot of nice girls). Sung by Lenoid Utyosov (a "jazz" singer — in Soviet context, this means Western-style — who would later be recognized as a People's Artist of the USSR) in the film, it's an I-want song with jazz-band instrumentation, a piece of boisterous reverie sung after he has fallen in love with the leading lady, the great Soviet singer and actress Lyubov Orlova, a favorite of Stalin.

Leshchenko's rendition was cut in Bucharest two years later, and renamed with the most memorable word of the refrain "Сердце" (Heart), and even though as a non-Party member his records were banned from the Soviet airwaves Russians tuned into Radio Tehran and bought bootleg discs cut onto old X-ray plates, and over the decades, especially during the thaw that followed Stalin's death, his rendition became known as the definitive one. Leshchenko was allowed to perform for the troops in Odessa during World War II, but would never be allowed to return to Russia to live; even when the Soviet authorities finally granted his request to settle there in 1951, the now Communist Romanian government arrested him, and he died in a prison hospital in 1955.

There's a haunting quality to this recording even without the historical background; it's schmaltz, but it's thoroughly creditable schmaltz, well sung and well orchestrated by Leschenko's frequent collaborator, bandleader Max Hönigsberg-Albahari. Structurally it's like any dance-band record of the era, but Dunayevsky's swooning melody and Leshchenko's vocal feeling push it over the edge from ordinarily pleasant to timeless classic.