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Airat ICHMOURATOV (b. 1973)
Concerto Grosso No.1, Op.28 (2011) [21:10]
Three Romances, Op.22 for viola and string orchestra, with harp (2009) [21:18]
Octet in G minor, Op.56 ‘Letter from an Unknown Woman’ (arr. for string orchestra by the composer) (2017) [17:16]
Elvira Misbakhova (viola)
Belarusian State Chamber Orchestra/Evgeny Bushkov
rec. 2018, Verhni Gorod Concert Hall, Minsk, Belarus
CHANDOS CHAN20141 [59:33]

There are few composers out there who epitomise cross-cultural open-mindedness quite like Airat Ichmouratov, a composer now in his mid-forties described in Keith Horner’s note as a ‘Volga Tatar-born Russian Canadian’. To my knowledge this is the first portrait disc devoted entirely to his art; individual pieces have emerged sporadically on Canadian labels such as Atma and Analekta. Nor is Ichmouratov’s somewhat exotic international background the sole reason for my opening remark; he is a celebrated clarinettist specialising in klezmer, most unusual for an individual brought up as a Muslim. Indeed he is a founder member of the Montreal-based band Kleztory, and remains its energetic clarinettist.

This new disc was recorded in Minsk, a few thousand miles away from Montreal; I suspect it is no coincidence that it should appear on Chandos, since for many years the foremost chamber orchestra in the Canadian city was I Musici de Montreal, established in 1983 by the cellist and conductor Yuli Turovsky, and a staple presence on the label for the best part of three decades. One of the last discs they recorded for Chandos was Klezmer in 2004 (review), a joint project with Kleztory. Both Turovsky (who was also the cellist with the Borodin Trio, also Chandos regulars) and his violinist wife Eleonora clearly exerted a benign influence on Ichmouratov after his arrival in Canada, and the first two works on this new issue are dedicated to this husband and wife team, both of whom have sadly passed away in the last decade.

I have to say I greatly enjoyed both these pieces. The Concerto Grosso (the first of two by Ichmouratov) is dedicated to Yuli Turovsky and features a concertino group of solo clarinet, piano, violin, viola and cello, along with a string orchestra and two percussionists who help to provide the work with its unusual tone colours and exotic favours. Ichmouratov has unapologetically identified some of the great Russian composers of the past as key influences, and the ghosts of Prokofiev, and Tchaikovsky certainly cast benign shadows over this work. Its opening theme seems to be a colourful descendant of its impish counterpart in Prokofiev’s Classical first symphony, and Ichmouratov’s vibrant clarinet writing (and playing) drives it along merrily, along with a rather closely recorded piano and some colourful percussion (notably the tubular bells). The conceit of the work as a whole involves a fascinating collision between Baroque, Slavic and Klezmer influences. The latter are even more apparent in a mournful central movement which follows without a break, and whose material builds to (and is apparently derived from) a grief-drenched doina for clarinet. The finale is structured around a variant of the first movement’s lyrical second theme, its ever changing material artfully tossed from one instrument to the next until the fully-flavoured klezmer clarinet leads a frenzied dance with vivid percussion, before the work makes a final detour to its opening Prokofievisms and comes full circle. The Concerto Grosso plumbs no great depths but is hugely enjoyable and certainly bears repeated listening. It is played with real energy and authentic fervour by the Belorussians. The earthy Chandos sound is most agreeable.

The Three Romances for viola and strings (with harp) occupy contrasting emotional territory and were written as a surprise 70th birthday present for Eleonora Turovsky, and first performed by some of her students at the celebration of this landmark. The opening movement is deftly coloured by gentle harp notes, while the solo viola writing takes full advantage of the instrument’s sepia tones and casts a nostalgic as opposed to tragic spell. Tiny harmonic variations differentiate successive phrases and effortlessly hold the listener’s interest. The central Romance is built on a pizzicato motif which again recalls Prokofiev – this time the glorious central movement of his second violin concerto – although Ichmouratov’s lilting writing at no stage implies slavish imitation. The second theme in this movement is lovely, and its reiteration is cleverly distorted by harp colorations. The soloist’s ascending major scale, which suddenly flattens as it continues to climb is crucial to the structure of the final piece, while its limpid orchestral backcloth is flecked with droplets of harp and clearly alludes to the Adagietto of Mahler’s fifth symphony. This movement is more enigmatic than its predecessors, tarter (pun intended) even. This conclusion however seems wreathed in something more akin to regret. The viola soloist is Elvira Misbakhova (who doubles as Mrs Ichmouratov) and her playing is beatific and understated. The absence of any hard-edged percussive sound renders the recording of these Romances a tad warmer than that provided for the Concerto Grosso.

I was a less taken with the string orchestral arrangement of Ichmouratov’s Octet, the most recent work here. Perhaps it needs a few more plays to get to grips with its argument. It’s a programmatic work, its subtitle inspired by a tragic short story by Stefan Zweig. A bare descending motif dissolves into Straussian opulence, but as major and minor intervals collide and intersect the overall feeling created is one of fraught anxiety. This first movement never seems to settle – it wanders hither and thither and I thought it seemed somewhat over-scored; it would certainly be instructive to hear the original work. After what seems like an allusion to Shostakovich’s eighth quartet the piece moves straight into a brilliantly scored will-o-the-wisp scherzo, whose hovering figures gradually coalesce and uncover a furiously expressed tune in the bass. The slow final movement conveys slivers of melody which meld into an unabashedly romantic theme; there are fleeting references to what has passed before the piece resolves (or not) on an ambiguous, ultimately rather sad note. The booklet note suggests that Ichmouratov enjoys recasting his music for different forces, although I’m not completely convinced the material here especially suits a larger ensemble. Either way, the Octet proposes some interesting ideas, though its impact on this listener was rather muted compared to that rendered by its couplings.

I would encourage anyone tempted by the delights of musical cross-pollination to sample this issue. Ichmouratov arranges his material most imaginatively for the unusual combinations of instruments in the first two works, while his unerring ear for melody ensures many of his ideas get into one’s head (and stay there). Moreover the colours which emerge from the Concerto Grosso in particular are quietly spectacular and always tasteful. There’s plenty here to make the disc worth a punt for those drawn to unfamiliar names.
Richard Hanlon

Previous reviews: Rob Barnett ~ Steve Arloff

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