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.