Istanbul Music Festival 2012- review

How Helene Grimaud and Fazil Say played with mixed performances

At the cusp of Occident and Orient, Turkey’s history is one of negotiation – balancing, sometimes bloodily, the cultural cross-currents of Europe and the Middle East. Nowhere has this balance been more vividly, more directly staged than in Istanbul, a city whose architecture – a jumbled lexis of Byzantine, Ottoman and Classical styles proclaims the complexity of its political history.

This same mongrel vigour is at work in the city’s annual sequence of arts festivals, animating their programmes with vivid and unexpected contrasts, if not outright conflict. Celebrating its 40th Anniversary this year, the Istanbul Festival is almost unrecognisable from its first incarnation in 1973. A small annual event has since grown exponentially, generating separate, self-contained festivals for theatre, jazz, and most recently design and the visual arts.

Sandwiched in the middle of these is a month-long celebration of classical music. Housed principally at Hagia Eirene – the former Eastern Orthodox church within the walls of Topkapi Palace – the festival’s support of Turkish artists is matched by a habitually strong lineup of international soloists. Chief among these this year were Anne-Sophie Mutter (whose performance of Mozart and Rihm took place earlier this month) and French pianist Helene Grimaud.

Notoriously uneven across different performances and repertoires, you never know quite what you’re going to get with Grimaud. And so it proved here; in an evening’s programme of solo piano music that saw her at both her finest and worst extremes.

The clean lines of Mozart’s Piano Sonata in A minor may not be technically challenging, but what they forgive in terms of technique they demand in stylistic respect. In the vaulted acoustic of Hagia Eirene clarity was always going to be an issue, but with melodies torn from their sockets and twisted every which-way by Grimaud’s splashy, Romantic approach this sonic haziness at least offered the softening that the pianist so determinedly refused to offer. Gripped in the bass, neurotically over-phrased in the treble, there was little left of Mozart here to appreciate.

What a different story though in the rest of a mixed programme that found Grimaud glowing and humane in Berg’s Piano Sonata Op. 1, and punchily percussive in Bartok’s miniature sequence of Romanian Folk Dances. Liszt’s B minor Sonata was the formidable centrepiece – its Allegro energico and Prestissimo sections as ferocious as anything ever written for the piano.

Here the same convulsions and eruptions that so disturbed Grimaud’s Mozart found their rhythm, matched for intensity by Liszt’s writing. Savouring the tenderness of the Andante sostenuto, Grimaud managed to incorporate the two rival moods of this symphony for the piano into a single arc, equalling the setting of Hagia Eirene for dramatic scope.

As close to a folk-hero as contemporary Turkish life yields, when pianist and composer Fazil Say is not performing he delights in playing the contrarian in public life. His opinions are never less than vigorously expressed, and his irreverent pronouncements on religion see him facing trial in court later this year. But while Say might be the bane of the Turkish government, he is beloved by Turkish audiences.

When most nations were voicing their national identity musically in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Turkey was otherwise engaged politically, leaving the country with a void in the genre. Only now and in Say’s music has the country’s character and troubled history begun to find expression, and the results have met with enthusiasm. While Say’s first “Istanbul” symphony was a more modest affair, his second “Mesopotamia” is a cinematic journey through his homeland and its history, taking in the region’s entrenched conflict as well as the physical beauty of its great rivers.

To Western European ears the result might seem strangely reactionary – a tone-poem in continuous movements in the manner of Sibelius or Smetana, but once you accept that this isn’t a symphony in the conventional sense and accept a programmatic form that works through contrasts rather than organic development, things fall into place.

Say’s music hitherto has occupied the darkly monochrome landscape so typical of Turkish music, but here with the aid of some unusual instrumentation he finds new harmonies spaces. The unearthly, pitch-bending theremin (played by Carolina Eyck) stands musically for an angel, and its voice calls out plaintively over the thick orchestral textures. Scenes of war bring the brass of the Borustan Istanbul Philharmonic to the fore, gaining an urgency and blunt edge that the orchestra under veteran Gurer Aykal lacked in Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto earlier in the evening.

A dissenting voice in life, in music Say is nothing if not affirming. With the closing Ballad of Mesopotamia section of his symphony he discovers a tentatively hopeful vision for Turkish future – a vision that feels a long way (both emotionally and technically) from such early works as Black Earth or his “Silk Road” concerto.

But while the Istanbul Music Festival itself is unquestionably international, in the standard of its concerts as well as the breadth of its programming, the same as yet cannot be said of Turkish classical music. With Say, Turkey has the idiosyncratic, reassuring voice that its audiences want, but perhaps not the truly contemporary voice that they deserve – certainly not one capable of taking the nation’s music beyond self-reflexive national contemplation and into the musical discourse of Vienna, Berlin and Paris.

Helene Grimaud, who performed this month in the festival. Photo: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Honey, I shrunk the Tories

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Hands across the pages: the stories of the world's most beautiful books

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel allows us to see inside the books most of us will never get the chance to open.

Some books are so old and valuable that most readers will never get to see them ­except when opened at a single spread in a glass display case. As Christopher de Hamel (the custodian of the treasure-house Parker Library at Corpus Christi, Cambridge) observes, even now that many rare books have been digitised, there is no satisfactory substitute for sitting at a desk and turning these ancient pages yourself, “touching hands” with their creators and the long-vanished world in which they lived.

Given that you generally need to be a ­palaeographer of de Hamel’s standing in order to do this, his handsome new book provides the next best thing. He has selected for our joint inspection 12 manuscripts, ranging in date from the late-6th-century Gospels of St Augustine to the early 16th-century Spinola Hours. These books have made very long journeys to their current locations in (mostly) high-security, temperature-controlled and restricted-access libraries and museums, crossing seas and continents, passing through many hands, and sometimes disappearing entirely from view for centuries.

The experience of reading this book is of sitting beside de Hamel as he describes the commissioning, making and subsequent history of these manuscripts and draws our attention to quirky or crucial details we might otherwise have missed. The book is lavishly illustrated but many of the images have had to be reduced from their real dimensions, and readers will find it useful to have a magnifying glass to hand, as de Hamel does when studying the originals.

As part of the immersive experience the author provides, we meet not only the books, but also the libraries and museums in which they are kept and the staff who oversee them. At the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen, he tells us, ordinary visitors are treated “with a care and patience I could hardly imagine in any other national library”, whereas the employees of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York are grim, bossy and humourless, while those at the Bibliothèque nationale de France are “inclined to fob you off with microfilm, ­especially if they suspect that your French is not up to arguing”. Once seated at a desk, de Hamel takes possession of the books, describing their bindings, dimensions and (in footnotes) their collation, in which the pages that make up a manuscript are itemised according to “a formula that looks at first sight as impenetrable as a knitting pattern or a sequence of DNA, but which is in fact quite precise and simple”.

Some of these books were created for personal and portable use, but others are extremely large and heavy. In a delightfully unsupervised room at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, de Hamel tries to pick up the Codex Amiatinus (circa 700), the weight of which the archaeologist Rupert Bruce-Mitford likened to that of “a fully grown female Great Dane”. Not to be outdone, de Hamel notes that “a 12-to-13-year-old boy is about the same”, and adds that it would have taken the skins of 515 young cattle to produce the 1,030 pages of parchment needed for this huge Vulgate Bible. It began its life in what is now Tyne and Wear, copied from a Bible brought back to England from Rome in 680 by two monks called Benedict and Ceolfrith. It was in fact one of three copies, two of them commissioned for the twinned abbeys of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and a third to be lugged back to the papal court in Rome, “the first documented export of a work of art from England”.

Unfortunately, Ceolfrith died en route in central France and the book vanished from history for over a millennium, not least because someone altered its dedication page. It appeared, unrecognised, in the inventory of a Tuscan monastery in 1036, but was not identified as Ceolfrith’s lost copy until 1887. Quite how it ended up in the monastery is not known, though de Hamel wonders whether the monks accompanying Ceolfrith paused at Monte Amiata on the onward journey to Rome and then decided to settle there.

The detective work in tracing the history and provenance of these manuscripts is an essential and enthralling element of de Hamel’s book. Another extraordinary survival is that of The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, found literally underfoot by a French soldier in a railway siding at Berchtesgaden Railway Station in 1945, after Hitler’s Alpine retreat had been overrun by Allied forces. Created for the eponymous French queen in the second quarter of the 14th century, the book passed through several royal hands, including those of Joan of Navarre, the second wife of Henry IV of England. It then spent three centuries at a Franciscan nunnery in Paris, before coming on to the collectors’ market. Bought by Edmond de Rothschild in 1919, it was subsequently stolen by the Nazis and possibly entered Hermann Göring’s personal collection.

The significance of these books is not merely palaeographical, and de Hamel proves equally well versed in medieval genealogy, and religious and social history. He provides enlightening accounts both of the production of the books and of the ways in which they were used: sometimes to teach royal children to read, sometimes as a way for the aristocratic laity to commune with God without the intermediary of church and priest. He describes the physical demands of being a scrivener or illuminator, and a fascinating chapter on the “Hengwrt Chaucer” carefully weighs the evidence identifying the individual who created this c.1400 copy of The Canterbury Tales.

The author challenges the received wisdom, declaring himself unimpressed by the much-vaunted artistry of The Book of Kells: it may contain the earliest painting of the Virgin and Child in European art but “the baby is grotesque and unadorable, with wild red hair like seaweed [and] protruding upturned nose and chin”. He evidently prefers the mid-10th-century Morgan Beatus, which warns of an apocalypse that seemed at the time all too imminent and includes an enchanting Adam and Eve, “brightly pink like newly arrived English ­holidaymakers on Spanish beaches”. As these quotations demonstrate, de Hamel’s book may be a work of formidable scholarship but it is also, thanks to the author’s relaxed and informal style of writing, eminently readable and very entertaining.

Peter Parker is the author of “Housman Country: Into the Heart of England” (Little, Brown)

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel is published by Allen Lane (640pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times