The biographically sparse notes to this Chandos recording tell us little about the Russian-Canadian composer, clarinettist and conductor Airat Ichmouratov other than he was born in Soviet Tatarstan in 1973, and settled in Montreal in 1998 together with his violist wife, the extravagantly gifted Elvira Misbakhova. His website is more informative. He studied clarinet at the Kazan State Conservatory before plying an apprenticeship with the Tatarstan Opera and Ballet Theatre and the Kazan State Symphony Orchestra. He completed his studies at the University of Montreal. For the better part of twenty years, mentored early on by Yuli Turovsky of I Musici de Montréal, he's been active touring as a clarinettist and conductor.
A Volga man, his output ranges from symphonic, concerted and chamber music to a dozen or so klezmer outings, including, in 2012, a set of accompanied violin klezmer cadenzas for the Beethoven Concerto (Alexandre Da Costa, Warner Classics). A pro-active member of the Montreal band Kleztory – rougher-grained, earthier than Göran Fröst – he and his wife learnt the klezmer style as buskers. “I'm influenced to this day by Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Mussorgsky, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky”, he says, “[yet I] find myself, a Muslim-born musician, playing klezmer, now a distinctive part of my musical language.” His performances and many recordings testify to a throaty, sensually physical response to the medium.
For those of us who know the Turovsky/Analekta recording of his 2007 'triple concerto' Fantastic Dances, this album is an overdue introduction to Ichmouratov's world. Immaculate craftsmanship, an impeccable orchestral ear, and a rich vein of tonal/modal melody go without saying. The Three Romances (2009) for viola and strings with harp obbligato – a musical portrait of the violinist Eleonora Turovsky – ravish at every turn. The inheritance is more old Russian oblast than Soviet republic, a wistfully beautiful journey of memories and nuances along roads somewhere between Liadov, Mahler and Schindler's List. Here climactic and urgent, there reflective and yearning, music to accompany a faded photograph, these pieces should be standard viola repertory. Twenty-one minutes of aching, searching poetry.
In three variously subdivided movements played without a break, Letter from an Unknown Woman (2017), arranged by the composer for strings, draws its inspiration and expressive intensity from a 1922 novella by Stefan Zweig – a “story of a life lived in service to an unannounced, unnoticed love.” The power of Ichmouratov's writing, his filmic way of giving G-minor a life and death born out of elegiac Tchaikovsky, Mahlerian Schubert, fin de siècle Vienna, the bleakness of wartime Shostakovich, urged me back to the original story. She: “I believe only in you, I love only you, and I will live on only in you.” He: “He sensed the presence of death, he sensed the presence of undying love: something broke open inside him, and he thought of the invisible woman, incorporeal and passionate, as one might think of distant music.” Ichmouratov gives us a soundtrack waiting to be imaged.
Enviable confidence, facility and rhythmic tension inform the First Concerto Grosso (2011), similarly in three connected movements. There's plenty of invention and bustle here. 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 – focussed through a variety of lenses and emotions. Variegated string-writing, a pseudo-Baroque concertino of clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano, screaming klezmer climaxes and attacking percussion, add up to a pulsating mélange. The 'character' stars of Moscow's Moiseyev company should choreograph its tracery.
With outstanding engineering and production (Vadim Kiranov), crisply detailed in a luscious acoustic, these premiere recordings are unmissable. Evgeny Bushkov, an inspired, dynamic conductor with a sense of time and paragraphing, gets his Belarusian musicians to play for their lives, not a slur, staccato or colour missed. Misbakhova, mahogany-toned, is outstanding in the Romances. And you get a dazzling dash of the composer himself in the clarinet solos of the Concerto Grosso, scorching. Such a splendid gallery of personalities and voices: I wouldn't want to be without any of them.