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Airat ICHMOURATOV (b. 1973)
Concerto Grosso No.1, Op.28 (2011) [21:10]
Three Romances, Op.22 for viola and strings (2009) 21:18
Octet, Op.56 "Letter from an Unknown Woman" in g minor for strings, with harp (2017), arranged by the composer for string orchestra [17:16]
Elvira Misbakhova (viola), Oksana Sushkova (harp)
Belarusian State Chamber Orchestra/Evgeny Bushkov
rec. 2018, Verhni Gorod Concert Hall, Svobody Square, Minsk, Belarus
Premiere recordings
CHANDOS CHAN20141 [60:04]

Though it is natural it is often unhelpful to approach a new composer with preconceptions but more often than not such feelings are involuntary. Before hearing a note of the music written by Tatarstanian composer Airat Ichmouratov, I imagined I would hear influences from Central Asia but, had I looked up the region on my PC first, I would have discovered that though there is much evidence that the Volga Tatars originate from descendants of Mongols and Volga Bulgarians, the autonomous Republic of Tatarstan is ‘only’ 500 miles east of Moscow. Once I read the accompanying booklet, however, I found that Ichmouratov had learned to play klezmer music while busking in Montreal where he had moved to with his viola playing wife Elvira Misbakhova and has spent 20 years touring all over the world in a klezmer band. The idea of a Muslim born composer playing Jewish klezmer music very much appeals to my world view that the more we all mix the greater chance that understanding among peoples will conquer xenophobia. At the same time the composer recognises and celebrates the influence he draws from Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Mussorgsky, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky. With such a rich cultural background to draw on it is an exciting prospect to hear what emerges from such a mix. I was bowled over by what I heard as it was a long way from anything I imagined, indeed it was revelatory.

First up is his Concerto Grosso a form made famous in the eighteenth century by such masters as Corelli, Handel and Vivaldi. Whereas a concerto with a single soloist passes material to the orchestra and is influenced by it, the concerto grosso has music played by a number of instruments, which is passed among each other and the rest of the orchestra. This he does in the most skilful and interesting way. His choice of ‘soloists’ here are violin, viola, clarinet, cello and piano. Right from the first notes you can hear what the music owes to the original form seen through a 21st century prism. This is music designed to delight and to bring a smile to your face. It succeeds in doing so in no uncertain terms as its first theme almost skips along. Later the clarinet plays a traditional Russian song, which the orchestra develops and the first movement comes to an end. The totally contrasting second then opens seamlessly with a plaintive Jewish sounding lament on the cello, soon taken up with an unmistakable klezmer sounding clarinet that the orchestra transforms into a calming balm. The sadness returns courtesy of the viola while the orchestra emphasises its sorrowful mood with increasing intensity; the clarinet comes back to distil the sadness into concentrated form until the movement trails off into a whisper. The third and final movement goes back to its opening optimism and soon a klezmatic violin plays a melody, which builds into the urgency that such music is often associated with, finally merging into a return of the main theme of the concerto’s optimistic opening to close the work.

The Three Romances for viola and strings are achingly beautiful miniatures written as an affectionate portrayal of, birthday present for and tribute to Eleonora Turovsky (1939-2012) and played at a surprise birthday party by pupils of hers. One can only imagine how thrilled she must have been by such an expression of admiration that surely will have caused a tremendous emotional reaction, which the music absolutely demands. The viola is the perfect vehicle to deliver the sentiment and passion embodied in these gorgeous pieces. The romances were given their first public première in 2012, with the composer conducting I Musici de Montreal, the band formed in 1983 by Yuli Turovsky – the devotee of the concerto grosso above – who died a year after his wife in 2013.

The final work on the disc is an arrangement for string orchestra of Ichmouratov’s octet, inspired by Stefan Zweig’s novella Brief einer Unbekannten (Letter from an unknown Woman); a story of ‘unrequited love, loss, pain and obsession’, as Keith Horner’s notes put it, which had the composer pour every ounce of emotion possible into this seventeen minute work. Having read a summary of the ‘letter’ in the notes it is clear that Ichmouratov has been completely successful in capturing the intense emotion embodied in the story to heart-breaking effect. Once again his skilful use of the viola, inspired no doubt by his wife Elvira Misbakhova’s singular abilities, makes the work a shining success. Whether the reworking into a three movement piece for string orchestra from a single movement octet has caused a loss of any of the intimacy can only be imagined but I would certainly like to hear it in its original form. In any event it is an extremely powerful work that injects every drop of passion into the music and takes the listener through a whole gamut of emotion, making it a deeply personal experience that surely encapsulates the power of Zweig’s writing.

Airat Ichmouratov is a surprising and welcome discovery, emphasising once again how much undiscovered talent there is ‘out there’. Only yesterday I came upon another composer from Quebec whose name was completely unknown to me (Jacques Hétu). It’s all as my mother would say “part of life’s rich pattern” and shows us how much there is to expect from life and music. I look forward to hearing what else this brilliant note-smith has to say!

Steve Arloff

Previous review: Rob Barnett

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