Classical Sight Readings: From Romania with love

British audiences are now within easy reach of one of music's most vibrant traditions. Getting the CD might prove harder
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The Independent Culture
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON always has a finger to the wind, and it's no surprise that the record label's first serious crossover record should showcase a Gypsy violinist.

It's also no surprise that this remarkable record - which is everywhere on sale in Euroland - should not be available in Britain. If you want to buy Lakatos you have to cross the Channel. It's not on sale here because DG's London office "can't decide how to launch it".

While we await Roby Lakatos's coming, plenty of other Gypsy groups are filling the gap. Shortly before Christmas the folk singer Marta Sebestyen led her Transylvanian group Muzsikas in a Festival Hall concert designed to show how faithful Bartk stayed to the music he found on his travels. Not even bog-standard amplification could destroy the exhilaration of the evening. Last week, London's Purcell Room was taken over by the Loyko Russian Gypsy band, again woefully over-amplified - will the South Bank never learn? Two violinists and a guitarist all doubling as vocalists, this was essentially a cafe-cabaret act, but wonderful nevertheless. Imitations of birdsong apart, their music is largely unadorned. As their records confirm, these musicians go for beguiling harmonies and clean lines, with a Kreislerish sweep and swagger.

On 18 January, the most extraordinary Gypsy band in the world will begin a week at Ronnie Scott's in the capital. Most people know them as Taraf de Haidouks - from two celebrated records on the Cramworld label - but the word de simply reflects the fact that their discoverers were Belgian. A taraf is a Romanian village band, haidouks are Robin Hood-style brigands, and the story of Haidouks' emergence is fittingly romantic.

It began when two young enthusiasts named Michel Winter and Stephane Karo heard some amateur recordings and decided to find their source. They knew the name of the village, but thanks to Ceausescu's attempts to obliterate the peasantry, the pair had to locate the place without the aid of a map. They eventually found 100 musicians ready and willing to play; it took them three months to sift out the most representative handful for a tour to Belgium. They made a record, and then another one which went to the top of the world music charts, and the rest is history.

If Ronnie Scott's doesn't amplify them to hell, we shall get a whiff of Haidouks' alchemy: with the aid of voices, violins, accordions and cimbaloms, they interweave sounds from Hungary, Turkey and Arabia. The key is their astonishing blend of wild emotion and artistic virtuosity (qualities that usually come as an either-or). Their singing is at once hard and sweet; their rhythms catch the ear off balance, while maintaining a powerful momentum. And their harmonic shifts make the brain reel: it's best not even to try an analysis of the structure - just let the magic work.

How has fame affected the musicians? According to Winter, some of them are now rich by local standards (with cars and bathrooms) while others are in debt with the mafia. They still spend half the year at home playing for weddings, and they're still completely anarchic. Is their art in danger of losing its purity? "Their art was never pure," replies Winter. "They've always behaved like musical magpies. But the ballads the old men sing may soon die out, because the young men aren't learning them." He admits that the band are now at a turning-point, but he thinks that the vastness of their repertoire will be their saving grace. Ironically, Winter and his friends are the other saving grace: now that Romania is succumbing to American entertainment's lethal global embrace, bands such as Haidouks must depend on fans abroad.

Meanwhile, Winter is continuing the good work. Check out another Cramworld record - Kocani Orkestar - for the Gypsy brass band he found at a wedding in Macedonia. While Haidouks are flamboyantly mercurial, these tireless blowers create their own grave beauty.

IT'S WORTH noting that the Loyko Gypsy ensemble were all classically trained: one of the Soviet Union's cultural glories was its music education. With representatives of four ex-Soviet republics starring with the Royal Opera during its short run at Sadler's Wells, this seemed like a good week to quiz the singers on their homelands' musical past and present.

Ilya Levinsky is based in Germany but hails from Baku, and would love to work again in the Azerbaijani capital. "But I could not develop my career there. When civil war broke out, culture came to a complete halt, and it has not recovered since," she says. Elena Kelessidi left her native Kazakhstan in the general exodus of talent after Communism's demise, but was spurred on by the decree that all singing teachers must henceforth speak not Russian but Kazakh. She, too, would love to go back to sing, "but as they have no money, I would be doing it for charity".

Alexandra Durseneva is a contracted Bolshoi mezzo who grew up in Kharkov, where her mother was a celebrated singer. She too was dismayed by the post-Communist injunction to sing in the local language, but the main incentives for her departure were the haemorrhage of talent and the impossible working conditions in the Kharkov opera house. "But we all love our motherlands - we can't stay away," she says. Though now a globe-trotting star, the Georgian bass Paata Burchuladze has never left his native Tbilisi, where despite threats of civil war he recently staged an opera festival. But in his view the crisis in singing-training is not confined to the old Soviet bloc: "Almost all the great teachers are dead. I know one or two in Georgia, and one in Odessa, but in Milan, for example - where all the world comes to study - I don't know of one good teacher. The great tradition is dead."

QUESTION: WHY did Julian Lloyd Webber fill a page of Monday's Daily Telegraph with a petulant rant against the new film Hilary and Jackie? Answer: Because the poor boy has a record to sell, a concert to promote, and an ongoing visibility-problem in the shadow of his illustrious elder brother.

If Jacqueline du Pre were to hear Jackie's Song - the watery little tribute the cellist is playing at the Wigmore on Sunday - she'd dismiss it with one of those four-letter words to which he takes such prissy exception in the film.