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

Iain Cameron
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Meet Scotland's 300-year-old snow patch, the Sphinx

Snow patch watchers expect it to melt away by the weekend. 

This weekend, Scotland's most resilient snow patch, dubbed Sphinx, is expected to melt away. The news has been met with a surprising outpouring of emotion and nationwide coverage. Even The Financial Times covered the story with the headline "The end is nigh for Britain's last snow". The story has also gone international, featuring in radio reports as far away as New Zealand.

So what is it about Sphinx that has captured the public’s imagination?  Some have suggested it could be symbolic. The Sphinx represents how we all feel, helpless and doomed to a fate determined by leaders like Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. 

Regular contributors to the Facebook page “Snow Patches in Scotland”  have their own, more prosaic theories. One tells me that the British are “generally a bit obsessed with weather and climate”, while another says snow-patches are "more interesting than anything Trump/May/Boris or Vladimir have to say”.

Those more interested in patches of snow than the existential consequences of international relations could be dismissed as having seriously skewed priorities, but there's more to the story of Sphinx than lies on the surface. 

For a start it's thought to be 300 years old, covering a small square of the Cairngorms for centuries with just six brief interruptions. Last time the Sphinx disappeared was 11 years ago. Though it may melt away this weekend, it is expected to be back by winter. 

Iain Cameron, the man who set up the Facebook page "Snow Patches in Scotland" and someone who has recorded and measured snow patches since he was a young boy, says that Sphinx has shrunk to the size of a large dinner table and he expects it will have melted entirely by this Saturday.

It came close to disappearing in 2011 as well, he adds. In October of that year, Sphinx at around its current size and only a heavy snowstorm revived it.

"They tend to keep the same shape and form every year," Cameron tells me. "It might sound weird to say, but it’s like seeing an elderly relative or an old friend. You’re slightly disappointed if it’s not in as good a condition."

But why has Sphinx survived for so long? The patch of land that Sphinx lies above faces towards the North East, meaning it is sheltered from the elements by large natural formations called Corries and avoids the bulk of what sunlight northern Scotland has to offer. 

It also sits on a bid of soil rather than boulder-fields, unlike the snow patches on Britain's highest mountain Ben Nevis. Boulder-fields allow air through them, but the soil does not, meaning the Sphinx melts only from the top.

Cameron is hesistant to attribute the increased rate of Sphinx's melting to climate change. He says meterologists can decide the causes based on the data which he and his fellow anoraks (as he calls them) collect. 

That data shows that over the past 11 years since Sphinx last melted it has changed size each year, not following any discernable pattern. “There is no rhyme or reason because of the vagaries of the Scottish climate," says Cameron.

One thing that has changed is Sphinx's title is no longer quite so secure. There is another snow patch in near Ben Nevis vying for the position of the last in Scotland. Cameron says that it is 50:50 as to which one will go first.