Celebration of Tatar Music Introduces Little Known Composers to Britain

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Zhiganov, Akhiyarova, Yarulli, Kallimullin, Rachmaninov, Rimsky Korsakova: Venera Gimadieva (soprano), Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra / Guerassim Voronkov (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 1.4.2015 (RB)

Nazib Zhiganov: Overture, Näfisä
Rezeda Akhiyarova: Symphonic poem, Monly sazym
Farid Yarullin: Ballade from Süräle
Rashid Kalimullin: Symphonic frescos
Sergei Rachmaninov: How fair this spot, Op.21 No.7; Daisies, Op.38 No.3; Sing not to me, Op.4 No.4; Aleko: Introduction, Intermezzo, Women’s dance, Men’s dance; Vocalise, Op.34 No.14; Francesca da Rimini: Prologue, Francesca’s aria (Oh do not weep my Paolo)
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Procession of the nobles (Cortège – Mlada); Aria, To go berry-picking in the woods (The Snow Maiden); Encores: aria from The Tsar’s Bride; Tatar folksong


My first concert at the Royal Festival Hall proved a pretty quiet affair from one point of view – what with the rain and an audience at say 60% capacity. At least it was easy to reach from Liverpool Street to Embankment and then a gentle walk across the pedestrian Hungerford bridges. This compares very well with the convoluted underground trek last summer from Liverpool Street to the Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Proms.

While the extra-musical auguries for the evening were unpromising the reality of the music-making was quite the opposite. The Glyndebourne-celebrated singer (Traviata), the composer and guiding impulse drive behind the concert, Rashid Kalimullin, not to mention the sponsoring Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Tatarstan all had every right to feel pleasure and pride. The 40% ‘absentees’ will eventually catch up with some extremely compelling and imaginative music. A pity though that the programme contained insufficient information about the composers and the works played in Part 1.

I needed to look up Tatarstan before launching out on this review. It is a constituent republic of the Russian Federation. The population is about 3.8m. Its main source of wealth is oil and it is highly industrialised. 55% of the population is Sunni Muslim and the remainder Russian Orthodox. Its capital city is Kazan. The country shares borders only with other RF republics.

Famous Tatars in the music world include Feodor Chaliapin, Rudolf Nureyev and Sofia Gubaidulina. To these names we can add sopranos Aida Garifullina and Albina Shagimuratova as well as pianist/conductor Mikhail Pletnev who conducted Zhiganov’s Näfisä overture and Kallimulin’s piano concerto in a concert in Kazan on 10 May 2007.

The concert fell into two natural segments separated by the interval. The first introduced the audience to fairly recent works by Tatar composers. The second offered songs and arias with orchestra together with orchestral bonbons from the operas of Rachmaninov and Rimszky Korsakov.This was unconventional: no concerto and a second half that comprised a mix of musical brevities – songs and arias with orchestra and orchestral-operatic bonnes bouches. The Tatar theme provided national cohesion although how Rimsky-Korsakov fits that profile I don’t know. I am assured that Rachmaninov had Tatar DNA but the sole link I could find for Rimsky was that invading Tatars feature in an opera not excerpted at the concert: The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh.

While ithe concert may have been unconventional it was certainly fresh and lived up to its billing as Pearls of Russian and Tatar Music. Would that there were more such concerts that kick the rutted structures and introduce really unfamiliar composers – there are plenty of new music premieres but this gave us what I guess to be UK premieres of four Tatar works for full orchestra written in the twentieth century.

First came the Overture to the symphony, Näfisä by Nazib Zhiganov (1911-1988). Zhiganov was chairman of Tatarstan’s Composers Union from 1939 to 1977, and founding rector of Kazan Conservatory (renamed in Zhiganov’s honour in 2000) from 1945 until his death. There are eight operas, three ballets, 15 symphonies and much else including the cantata Republic of Mine (1960). I can’t shed any light on the title of the Overture although Zhiganov favoured national historic heroic subjects. As for the music it is short and brassily turbulent – tragedy and passion. This is relieved by jewelled lyrical melancholic episodes seemingly influenced by Rimsky’s Antar matched with Miaskovsky’s Fifth Symphony. The brasher pages recall the example of Shostakovich in his more glaringly spectacular excursions as in the Festive Overture.

The short tone poem, Monly sazym by Rezeda Akhiyarova (b. 1956) is said by Rashid Kalimullin to be a “a monologue reflection about life, eternity … reflecting on the destiny of the individual, full of success and failure, tragedy and happiness.” The score begins in a half pulse and half grumble redolent of Balakirev’s Tamara. From this a long fluid and soulful melody emerges for cellos and double basses. The music becomes dreamy in the manner of Silvestrov’s Fifth Symphony from which pummelling nightmare arises a victorious brass oration. This dissipates into floral serenity carried by strings and solo flute emulating the quray (flute family) one of Tatarstan’s traditional wind instruments. The hard-working and securely accomplished flautist had a great deal to do throughout evening. I wish I could identify him by name – likewise the principal cello.

Farid Yarullin (1914-43) died in the fighting around Vienna. He was born in Kazan into the family of Tatar folk musician Zagidulla Yarullin. The Ballade is from the 1939 ballet Süräle which was staged in 1945 at the Tatar State Opera and Ballet Theatre. His music includes songs, a cello sonata, a string quartet and a symphony. Yarullin had a soft spot for Tatar fairy-tales and poems. While the Süräle of the title is a monster this Ballad section is, as Kalimullin says, “a nostalgic dream”. It features a gentle long-limbed melody which is superbly orchestrated — moments similar to Bax’s Garden of Fand — and in which the principal cello with the solo harp is much in evidence. This is an accessible and faintly sentimental piece where concentration on the melody precludes drama. It’s a lovely piece which can be counted in the company of the short cello pieces by Fauré and Frank Bridge; not to mention John Foulds’ Keltic Lament. Classic FM should pick this piece up and play it repeatedly. It is a discovery. The conductor called on the orchestra’s Principal Cello to take a bow as well she might for such a touching and concentrated contribution.

Rashid Kalimullin’s Symphonic frescos is in three movements – the only multi-movement Tatar work in the programme. Kalimullin, is one of the leading Tatar composers and is President of the Union of Tatarstan Composers. He spearheads the campaign to put the lost composer voices of his country into the spotlight at last and has gone on to become something of a mover and shaker in his own country and beyond. As a composer he is held in high regard by Sofia Gubaidulina.

Broadly speaking Symphonic frescos speaks in a similar idiom to the other pieces. Much of the orchestration is lapidary and delicately diaphanous. There are at times parallels with Ravel’s Ma mere l’oye. Set alongside this in the collage some Zhiganov-like obstreperous brass and some jazzy raw Manhattan swing in the streets of Kazan. It’s no surprise that in the programme book Kalimullin is pictured as a saxophonist – surely a name to add alongside that of the other jazz giant of the Federation, Nikolai Kapustin. The second fresco contrasts pastoral dreaminess with raucous convulsive strings and ends with a burst of Shostakovich 5 heroics. The final ‘panel’ is very varied with writing that seems familiar if you know RVW’s music for Giant Despair and Apollyon. This is matched with pages that suggest a meld of the Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains meeting Khachaturian’s SpartacusAdagio. Highly skilled writing, all of this. Before we are finished there are uproarious moments paralleling Mossolov’s Steel Foundry and the sort of eerie harmonic glissandi found in John Foulds’ music. Kalimullin has something of a gift for sweet pastel shades; so much so that on this occasion I rather wished there had been the courage to end on a shallow gradient into silence rather than the brash brass peroration. A fascinating work though and at the end the confident and commanding Russian conductor Guerassim Voronkov called the composer forward to acknowledge warm applause from an audience that I detected included quite a few Tatar nationals.

The second part of the concert had a striking role for the youthful and brilliant soprano Venera Gimadieva who understandably is already something of a darling of the UK operatic press. She is a member of the Bolshoi Theatre company with roles there including Marfa in The Tsar’s Bride. This latter helps explain her utter artistry and identity with a clearly tormented character in an aria from the opera which she included as an encore. Over the next 18 months she has an Elvira (I puritani), a repeat of Traviata (Dresden) and a Rigoletto (Gilda) and a Sonnambula at the Bolshoi.

Resplendent in a flowing carmine dress the diminutive figure of Gimadieva joined Voronkov for the three Rachmaninov songs. Instantly her total immersion in character and mood was apparent. It was as if there was no audience – only a singer completely absorbed in acting each song. There was nothing affected here and her technical command is secure and in its full glory: those floated high notes. She would make a magnificent Tatyana in Onegin. When she returned for the Vocalise she sang the wordless role as if she had worked out what the words were and invested the vocalisation with meaning – plaintive and passionate by turns. I should add here that she is not an impassive singer and that facial expressions, movement around the stage and arm gestures are all part of this singer’s eloquent array.

Voronkov then treated us to four orchestra-only extracts from Rachmaninov’s early gypsy opera Aleko. The Introduction is lightly Tchaikovskian while the truly stunning Intermezzo includes a gorgeous melody counterpointed with harp swirls. This must surely have influenced Bernard Herrmann in his more romantic film music. It impressed me as never before although I knew the piece from the EMI-Warner Previn recording. The Women’s Dance foreshadows the Symphonic Dances but with a lighter less viscous atmosphere. The Men’s Dance is Rachmaninov at his more Russian nationalist with echoes of Borodin’s brooding Polovtsi. It was here played with a nice balance of precision and abandon.

The very short Introductions to the two Tableaux that make up the opera Francesca da Rimini were conjoined by Voronkov and were over in a moment. Without a pause the music for Francesca’s grand aria began with Gimadieva almost floating onto the stage from the wings singing as she entered. The music was passionately put across yet with fine detail in place alongside the gorgeous finery and those superbly managed and viciously exposed high entries.

If you include the encore mentioned above there were then three pieces from Rimsky Korsakov’s operas. First came that staple of the LP era: The Entry of the Nobles from Mlada. This was in a performance that embraced that blend of satire and imperial magnificence that the composer was to develop further in The Golden Cockerel. Gimadieva once again showed a sure sense of stagecraft to match her vocal mastery by entering from the right having begun singing while off-stage and continuing as she walked to centre-stage as The Snow Maiden gathering berries with her friends. Once again her acting as the enraptured innocent suggested how good she would be as Tatiana in Onegin. The evening ended after The Tsar’s Bride aria, already mentioned, with a catchy yet touching Tatar folksong with resonance of a certain nightingale in a certain London square.

I hope that this is not the last we will hear of Tatar music. Why not more from Yarullin’s Süräle, or Zhiganov’s Symphony no. 2, the Kasaner symphony by Fasil Achmetow (1935–1998), the Konzertfantasie by Tatarchan Kokoiti (1908–1980), the symphony of Anatoli Luppow (b. 1929) not to mention Rashid Kalimullin’s own Piano Concerto? A modest start could be made by the BBC featuring Tatarstani radio tapes in its often revealing ‘Through the Night’ programme or by some company issuing Tatar radio tapes of the orchestral works on CD. How long before the next Tatar music concert in London, I wonder?

Rob Barnett