Balalaika breaks down the British reserve

BECONSFIELD Close in Dorridge, near Birmingham, may not be renowned as an international music centre but, on a wet October night, sounds that would make Pavarotti wobble with envy are issuing from one of its houses. In the front room are 15 members of St Petersburg's Rossica choir. They sing, we cry, and the proceedings are recorded on camcorder, so Dorridge can savour this moment for ever.

'We heard mention that English public is very strong, very cold, very disciplined,' says Valentina Kopylova, the choir's glamorous leader, as a duet performs a stirring Rachmaninov piece, accompanied by a slightly out-of-tune upright piano. 'But we find them very warm, hospitable. As warm as Italy]'

Rossica's journey from St Petersburg to the parlours of Dorridge is largely due to Jean and Ian Shearman, who met Valentina Kopylova in Russia two years ago. Jean organised concerts, and commandeered friends and neighbours to provide accommodation. The choir went down a storm. Friday was the farewell party for their second visit.

Rossica are taking advantage of Russia's new religious freedom to delve into medieval church music. Valentina has revived many obscure pieces.

In the conservatory, the basso profondo, who wears a Lenin-style beard and laughs like a panicked foghorn, is leading the singing, clapping and dancing. Three bottles of vodka lie empty on the table. Victor, the beaming balalaika player, wanders over, gold teeth glinting. He grins. We nod and smile. He can't speak English, we can't speak Russian. But before an embarrassing silence has time to develop, Victor launches into a song. That breaks the ice.

A rendition of Kalinka, a Dorridge favourite, starts up. This is a marvellous singalong which Victor leads with his balalaika. 'Kaaa - link, Kalinka, Kalinka,' we sing, clapping and getting faster and faster until Victor stops us for the verse.

When the Russians sing, whether it's a rollicking folk song, an aria or a church choral piece, their gestures and rich voices express a moving combination of tragedy and humour. 'Pavarotti and Dame Kiri are great actors with their voices,' says Mrs Shearman. 'But these people sing from the heart. Everyone always ends up crying.'

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