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Alina Ibragimova: ‘My heart is still Russian’

Despite a busy international career, violinist Alina Ibragimova still feels emotionally attached to her country of birth, she tells Ivan Hewett

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Alina Ibragimova: “There is no room for anything fake. You can immediately hear it”

Not so long ago Alina Ibragimova was just one of a crop of brilliant young violinists. Now she’s an established star who’s outsoared them all, with a diary that many performers twice her age would kill for. In the next few months she’s playing Mendelssohn’s violin concerto twice with different orchestras, premiering a new piece written for her at a festival in Cork, performing with her own quartet in Vienna, and giving concerts of Mozart in several different cities. And then there are this year’s Proms, where she will play the six solo Sonatas and Partitas of JS Bach.

How has she risen so high in such a short time? Immense discipline, iron-clad technique and willingness to take risks are the qualities that truly single out Ibragimova from many other performers. She’s hungry to take on challenges, whether it’s by commissioning composers, exploring long-lost ways of playing her instrument, or reviving music that’s slipped into oblivion (the concertos of her Russian compatriot Nikolai Roslavets who fell out of favour with the Communists is one of her enthusiasms).

Most important, though, is the super-charged feeling that courses through everything Ibragimova plays. Yes, she possesses an enchanting blonde prettiness, and whenever anything strikes her as funny, which is quite often, her face lights up with a dazzling smile. Yet that aside, she hurls herself at the music with immense fervour, which often seems only just under control. In any group of players, she’s always the one who stands out.

Despite the intensity that characterises many of her performances, Ibragimova seems entirely free of any dark side. My attempts to look for emotional baggage are greeted with “I don’t know” and a shrug and a little laugh that says, “I don’t bother with such stuff”. Perhaps this is the self-protection of the émigré. Ibragimova was born in 1985 and raised until the age of 10 in Moscow, by which time she was already showing great promise as a violinist. Then her father Rinat was appointed principal double-bassist of the London Symphony Orchestra, so the entire family moved to Britain. It must have been traumatic for a young girl to be plucked from her familiar surroundings and plunged into the very English ambience of the Menuhin School in Surrey, a hothouse institution for the musically gifted. “I didn’t know what I was doing, I spoke no English at all. I just had to follow everyone else,” she says with that smile, and surprisingly deep husky voice.

Ibragimova says she cherishes the freedom that Britain offers.

That early experience of adjusting to a new life means she now takes anything in her stride. “I only spend about five or six days a month at home,” she says, “so I am used to living out of a suitcase.” She’s determined to mould her own career, and spends much of her time on her own projects, such as the string quartet she founded.

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The Bach Sonatas and Partitas are another constant. Is she nervous about playing them in the huge space of the Albert Hall? “No, I think it will actually help, because it can draw people right in. It’s an incredible space, it can respond to so many kinds of music.”

She admits to finding these great pieces a struggle. “When I was a teenager I could not get the right balance of lightness and emotional pain.” Ah, so there’s pain in these pieces? She pauses. “Certainly there is a very serious honesty. You have to really find the deepest feeling and thoughts you have, and be honest when expressing them. There is no room for anything fake, you can immediately hear it.”

As if that weren’t enough, she’s playing Mendelssohn’s evergreen concerto with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, and collaborating with the group Apollo’s Fire in Bach’s E major concerto and a rare Vivaldi concerto. “I’ve never met them before,” she says, when I ask her about this fine American early music group. Isn’t she slightly nervous about appearing in the harsh spotlight of the Proms with a group she hasn’t even met? “No… it’s something new. I like to play and I like to meet people,” she says.

Ibragimova will play the six solo Sonatas and Partitas of JS Bach at this year’s Proms

Surely some things make her nervous. “Well, I do get worked up when I don’t have time to practice, if there’s no time to pick up the violin,” she concedes. “If I spend a day without touching the instrument I feel uncomfortable. I have been playing since I was four, after all.” The other attachment she’s careful to cultivate is her memory of Russia. “I make it a rule to alternate English and Russian novels, so I don’t lose touch with the language,” she says. “I definitely feel my roots are still there. My heart or my soul…whatever you can call it… is still Russian.”

What does she miss most? “Oh, the forests, which just go on and on. Most of all I am nostalgic for Russian food and cinema. I used to visit my grandmother in Yekaterinburg, and she made these wonderful pastries, very heavy.”

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Of course, there is a darker side to all of this. Russia’s current political situation sharply divides the expatriot community of Russian musicians in London. I have heard unprintable diatribes against Putin from one young pianist, and stout defences of the “great patriot” Valerie Gergiev from a violinist. I’m keen to know where Ibragimova stands on all this, but she won’t be drawn. “I don’t know much about it. But actually nobody knows what is really going on in Russia, not even the people who live there. I know things are very difficult there, the rouble has lost so much of its value and people really struggle.”

She cherishes the freedoms Britain offers – “it’s really wonderful the way you can find out anything, get anything, become anything”, she says, clearly astonished by things the rest of us take for granted. But even now, after almost 20 years, some things about Britain still strike her as odd. “All that sending cards to say thank you or happy birthday. I can’t see the point. Why not just say it?” What she misses most is the generosity of her people. “It’s the willingness to give without calculating. In Russia people who have nothing will give you everything. I am a bit crazy that way. I’m not at all sensible, I will just give things away on a whim.”

This feeling of “what’s mine is yours” underlies her playing too. “When I play, I don’t feel it’s my performance or my music. It’s a communal thing. It’s as if I am the audience, and they are me. We’re all in it together. It’s not about me or the audience, it’s about the music.”

Alina Ibragimova appears as part of the London Violin Festival on June 14 at the Barbican (barbican.org.uk)

appears at the Proms on July 31 and Aug 1, 15, 27 (0845 401 5040;bbc.co.uk/proms).

‘Ysaÿe: Sonatas for solo violin’ is available from today (Hyperion)

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