It was the joyfulness and spontaneity of her Beethoven that stood out. With Bach and Mendelssohn, it was the way she reimagined familiar music. As for Prokofiev, she really let rip, stamping every phrase with conviction and gravitas.
On disc or in concert, each performance by Alina Ibragimova has turned into a voyage of discovery, in which the Russian-born, UK-resident violinist stretches herself and surprises us. No classical soloist has emerged so confidently in recent years, with a sure sense of personal style but without conceding to the usual marketing-led frenzy of strapless gowns and glossy hair-dos. Ibragimova lets the music do the talking. As well she might: there’s a truthfulness to her playing, a sense of stylistic and interpretative freedom, that is remarkable for a 28-year-old.
That may be just one critic’s opinion but it seems to be shared by many in the music business, and there will be ample opportunity to test it in coming weeks. This month, Ibragimova joins the London Symphony Orchestra and conductor John Eliot Gardiner for performances of Schumann’s Violin Concerto. In April, she plays Vaughan Williams in the Netherlands and Vasks in Finland, followed by the complete Ysaye sonatas in Japan. Then, in June, she returns to London’s Wigmore Hall for a duo recital with pianist Steven Osborne, coinciding with the release on Hyperion of Prokofiev’s violin sonatas.
Born in 1985 near the city of Ekaterinburg, about 1,000 miles east of Moscow on the edge of the Ural Mountains, Ibragimova was educated from the age of five in a state music college and moved to the UK five years later when her father, Rinat Ibragimov, was appointed principal double-bass with the London Symphony Orchestra. Her mother, Lutsia, is a professor of violin at the Yehudi Menuhin School, where Ibragimova studied before moving to the Guildhall School and the Royal College of Music.
That sounds like a predetermined career. Ibragimova says she has been holding a violin “for as long as I can remember”, although she insists her parents “knew when to let go” when it came to practising. Even so, one of the things that distinguishes her from her peers is an aura of dedication – a legacy, she thinks, of the Russian school of music.
“That was instilled in me by my teachers – a built-in discipline,” she says, speaking with an accent that reflects her origins. “If something wasn’t working, I’d work days and nights to get it right. I give thanks for that. It’s not just about discipline in music, it’s about principles – to be honest to yourself, to be strong.
“It’s a very clear system: you don’t skip things, you don’t play things that are too difficult. You do things step by step, thoroughly.
“After that, I slightly changed course [to study with violin virtuosi Gordan Nikolitch and Christian Tetzlaff] and I studied baroque [violin] as well, so my interests branched out. But the obsessiveness remained.”
Such sentiments suggest Ibragimova recognises the value of her roots. Family visits to Ekaterinburg have made her realise “how much I miss Russia and recognise it. I’m a mix. I feel connected to Russia but when I go there I sometimes find it really hard to understand people. It’s like a totally different world.”
Comparing western lifestyles to her grandparents’ rural simplicity, she says that, “here [in London] there’s more self-expression, more knowledge – it’s a luxury in some sense. In another sense it takes something away. Where my grandparents live, there’s more humanity, warmth and compassion. An older Russian [émigré] musician told me he feels guilty when he goes back. I don’t feel guilt but I do feel I lack something they have.”
All these influences, sometimes conflicting but mostly enriching, feed into her music-making. “We have the music [on the music stand] but, great as it is, it’s just a piece of paper until we try to explore it,” she says. “That’s where experience comes in. The more you relate to what goes on in life, the more you can channel that into finding what’s in the music. You don’t think about it while you’re doing it – you just concentrate on trying to bring out the best.”
Does this mean that, setting aside questions of technique, the person with the widest experience generally has most to say? “It could be, but there’s a lot to be said for freshness, naïveté and unspoiltness as well.”
On questions of style, Ibragimova is pragmatic. Having investigated historically informed performance while still a teenager, going against what she calls the “old-fashioned” consensus at the Menuhin School, she now regularly plays with period-instrument ensembles. This has influenced her approach to 19th-century music.
So how will she tackle Schumann’s Violin Concerto, dating from the mid-Romantic era? It comes as a surprise to learn that she has not yet performed it in public. “It’s quite new to me. We’ll see how it goes. Until you perform a piece in concert, you don’t know what it’s like.”
And the better-known Brahms Concerto? When I suggest that the nearer music gets to our time, the less it is subject to historical style, she puts me in my place.
“It’s not something to do with dates and academic correctness. With style, there are no theoretical absolutes. It’s a question of finding what’s most appropriate for that music in that situation. Everyone has personal feelings about it. People today feel pressurised to be historically informed and, for me, that’s a good thing but for some it doesn’t feel natural, and it can still be convincing and beautiful, with a stylistic integrity of its own.”
Apart from taking a fresh look at that old Russian warhorse, the Tchaikovsky concerto, music by Bartók and Shostakovich stands foremost on Ibragimova’s to-do list. With Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending now in her repertoire, what about more English music – Elgar’s Violin Concerto, for example?
“Not yet. There are a couple of others I’d like to do first.” The violin concerto by William Walton? “I love the Walton. Britten, too – it’s a great piece. But I really want to do more contemporary music. I’ve just done Zimmermann’s concerto – it’s full of everything – and Cage’s Six Melodies. It sounds simple but it’s really difficult.”
Ibragimova is at the stage where the entire repertoire is at her feet, and it’s a matter of intelligently picking her way.
Alina Ibragimova plays with the LSO on March 21, 22, 23. Details at lso.co.uk