Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

Working in the BBC Music Division fifty years ago, touchstone of post-war British Establishment culture, anything east of the Danube, south of Yucatán, the African continent Sahara to Kalahari, the central Asian land-mass, was niche territory, ignored if not disparaged, at best selective World Service fodder. Subscribe to the gospel of Boulez and Glock you stood a chance. Come from another society, go your own way, risk neo-retro, prospects were not so encouraging. Today’s ‘anything goes’ cross-over climate has liberated some, particularly the African diaspora. Yet not as widely or democratically as might be supposed. Gaps and prejudices, perma-frozen marginalisations, closed doors remain.

Music as a tongue of many dialects in many mansions underpins Airat Ichmouratov’s latest album, his third for Chandos. Turned fifty earlier this year, he was born in Soviet-period Kazan, capital of Tatarstan, an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation, eight-hundred kilometres east of Moscow on the road from Nizhny Novgorod. A Volga Tatar, he’s a clarinettist who honed his craft between opera and ballet and under Fuat Mansurov at the Tatarstan National Symphony Orchestra. Commercially veneered traditional songs surrounded him from early on, their localised Turkic/Finno-Ugric characteristics growing out of the pentatonic scale, groove riffs, and strophic patterns. Their audio canvas centered around vibrato-less vocals, throat-singing, kubyz (jaw harp), garmon (diatonic button accordion), bayan (chromatic button accordion), zurna (double reed), quray (end-blown flute), saz (long-necked lute), frame drum and varied percussion. Emigrating to North America in 1998 introduced another ingredient to the mix – Jewish klezmer – learnt busking in downtown Montréal: he’s the charismatically energised reed-player/arranger/composer of Kleztory, Canada’s pre-eminent, award-winning klezmer/world music ensemble, founded in 2000. “I’m influenced to this day by Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Mussorgsky, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky, yet I find myself, a Muslim-born musician, playing klezmer, a distinctive part of my musical language.”

Penetrating his persona, recognising the matches in his DNA, is complex. Russian Romanticism. Tatar heritage. The nomadic wanderers, horsemen and archers of the steppe, descendents of Genghis Khan. Central/Eastern European Yiddish. Handing down stories the bardic way (ekiyatche, a teller of fairy tales). Shamanism. Repetitively circling melodic segments, cantorial reydlekh, much less motivic ‘German’ development, are his building blocks. Conflating selfhood, quotation and sonics he can craft deep-souled slow movements ghosted by distantly plaited folklore. The beauty of some of his source material, the sense of pride, open horizons and spiritual wanderlust, is impossible to deny. Tatar singer-artists like Ilham Shakirov (1), who left Rostropovich lost for words, or Haydar Bigichev typify the post-war style. Bigichev’s ‘Teftileu’ – transcribed in Rybakov’s Music and songs of the Ural Muslims published in St Petersburg in 1897 – was a favourite of Ichmouratov’s mother (2). Karolina Cicha’s plangent 2017 Tatar album (with Bartłomiej Pałyga, Wydźwięk 5757253) is a striking reconstruct in the vein of Savall, Pal-Yarden or Devecioğlu (3). She comes from the Białystok Uplands on the Polish-Belarusian border, home since the fourteenth-century to a significant if dwindling Tatar minority – “the only example of a lasting Muslim community in a non-Islamic European country” (Bogusław R. Zagórski).

Living the Tatar fate – ever receding westwards, forsaking Mongol skies and grasses – Ichmouratov’s decision to settle in Canada in his twenties (more or less Beethoven’s age when he moved from Bonn to Vienna, Chopin’s when he left Warsaw for Paris) brought about geo-social and cultural upheaval. The uncertainty of what might be, the support of Yuli Turovsky of I Musici de Montréal notwithstanding. The parcelling-up of a place and past with its rituals and ceremonies, emotions and goodbyes. Moldavian Hora, a traditional tune going back to the nascent days of acoustic recording, is one of Kleztory’s repertory staples. They recorded it with Turovsky in 2004 (Chandos CHAN 10181). A 2021 video linked with their Momentum re-make (Chandos CHAN 20187) is prefaced by a French introduction from the group’s accordionist Melanie Bergeron (bailarina de tango, actress) backed by an orientalised duclar descant from Ichmouratov (4). Every emigrant’s autobiography, the words (her own) – nuanced and soft, infinitely lachrymose, chiselled – cut to the quick. “Imagine that you are closing the door of your house for the last time, knowing that you will never come back; pulling up your roots as it were with your bare hands, your little ones under your arm, leaving behind family and friends whom you will probably never see again; leaving without knowing if someone will be waiting for you out there …”

Reviewing his First Concerto Grosso in 2019 (Chandos CHAN 20141), I noted that “Prokofiev and Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, meet. Russian and Yiddish song, fragments of aria, ballet and dance, migrant marching and up-front primás playing, rub shoulders without frontier” Coupled with his Slavic Maslenitsa Overture, On the Ruins of an Ancient Fort, a 47-minute programme-symphony depicting phases in the history of Fort Longueil, Québec (Chandos CHAN 20172), ventures other roads, cross-pollination, though, still remaining the deciding aesthetic. Cameos snared in the 19th century drift past, a flash of Sibelius here, Respighi there, music cut from theatre and film cloth. ‘Landscape’ epic, ‘studio’ romance, set-numbers. Big-screen Hollywood. Grandmama’s patchwork quilt. Magnificoreligiososcherzandofuocomaestosoalla marcia. Embracing Ichmouratov’s pan-world is to enter a room of kaleidoscopic associations and artefacts, to confront tapestries and postcards, memories and aromas, angsts and admissions – strewn, shadowed and fractured as randomly as the incidents and deceptions, comforts and discomforts, despairs and exultations, highs and lows, filtering the human condition.

At around thirty-eight minutes each, the Piano and (First) Viola Concertos (2012-13; 2004) are episodic traversals. The first movement of the latter falls into seven tempo-contrasted sections, that of the former into seventeen. Ideas once heard are variously recalled, cut short, alluded to, or simply left, their flight and destiny as unpredictable a process as Ichmouratov’s handling of keys. “When I compose I hear a certain tonality and simply follow what I hear, sometimes ending up with surprising key relations.” The Piano Concerto includes a formal cadenza, the First Viola doesn’t, though the unaccompanied Recitativo of its F minor central tableau substitutes believably. From intimations of Rachmaninov opening PftC to Khachaturian closing VlaC, Mahler to Prokofiev to Shostakovich, there’s no shortage of models, reminiscences and paraphrases in these pages. On the other hand, in the prolonged slow movements, we’re confronted with chapters of deeply personal feeling and sustained bloom. We’re privy to a composer who speaks unashamedly, throatily, as only a man from the East can, of his “thoughts, feelings, nostalgia, sorrow, and happiness” behind the Piano Concerto’s sustained Grave solenne, its poetic lines and soaring climax “born through lots of emotions, lots of tears”.

Both were revised in 2021, the solo parts edited by their respective dedicatee-soloists. Jean-Philippe Sylvestre excels in virtuoso pianism. Elvira Misbakhova – principal violist of Yannick Nezet-Seguin’s Orchestre Métropolitain –  reigns regally supreme. The LSO, recorded at St Luke’s (April/May 2022), commit to do what it does clinically well. If now and again proceedings dip in temperature, wanting in space and ceiling, the quieter textures more opaque and measured than magical, maybe it’s because the layers and pillars of Ichmouratov’s music ideally need more of a ‘Stokowski’ Hovhaness sound, ‘Scandinavian’ voltage, high adrenalin, to impact fully.

These time-travelling, frontier-less scores, with their hushed dreams, no-hold-barred tuttis, thespian orchestration and solo challenges, are singular to experience. Take them as you find them. Respect their differences, for daring to be. Chandos CHSA 5281 [SACD].