The most appealing thing about music Festivals is the unique atmosphere they provide in presenting what is often an exceptionally high standard of performance. Glyndebourne with picnics and Pommery, Aix-en-Provence’s al fresco chic, Bayreuth’s über ernst Wagner-philes imbibing beer and devouring bratwursts in black tie, and Salzburg’s Dior-clad demimonde mingling with dirndled locals have all established their own unmistakable individuality and distinctive ambience.

Hagia Eirene
Hagia Eirene

The singular attraction of the Istanbul International Music Festival is undoubtedly the fascinating city itself. As the dynamic young Festival director Yeşim Gürer Oymak explained, the ancient metropolis provides a superabundance of historical sites for possible performance venues even if there is not yet a particular dedicated concert hall.

This year’s festival used a total of 17 locations, including short consecutive concerts in 5 different churches called the ‘Music Route’ where the audience strolled between venues and enjoyed the architectural attractions of the city along the way.The most remarkable setting however is the early 4th century church of Hagia Eirene, only a few steps away from the better known Hagia Sophia. Located within the Klingsor-ish gardens of the Topkapi Palace, Hagia Eirene has an exceptional history. It was the first Christian church to be built in his eponymous capital by Emperor Constantine and miraculously the only orthodox edifice not to be converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest in 1453. There can hardly be an indoor concert venue in the world of such historical interest and in its longevity, it is without equal.

Murray Perahia © Felix Broede
Murray Perahia
© Felix Broede
The Istanbul Festival has been in operation since 1973 and has hosted such acclaimed orchestras as the New York Philharmonic under both Kurt Masur and Zubin Mehta and the Berliner Philharmoniker with Sir Simon Rattle. Following in such illustrious footsteps was the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields under Murray Perahia. As an absolutely outstanding pianist and seemingly modest musician of anti-divo disposition, Perahia is arguably a living legend. Before the performance he was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts.

The first of two concerts opened with the Mendelssohn C Minor String Symphony No. 13 (‘Sinfoniesatz’). Composed when a mere Berlinerbursche of about 13, it clearly reveals his musical precociousness. The Academy was led by its concertmaster Tomo Keller and although the heavily textured string writing was sometimes a little lacking in transparency, the rhythmic exuberance of the work was well executed.

Perahia’s first offering as soloist and conductor was another relatively early work, this time Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 9. Perahia’s customary clarity of tone was immediately evident in the opening bars and his mesmorizingly light finger touch very much apparent. The achingly lyrical second movement was beautifully phrased whilst the rondo/presto finale effusive and bubbly with fine coordination between soloists and orchestra. An encore of the Schumann Fantasiestücke, Op. 12 completed an impressive first half. The evening culminated in Schumann’s introspective Second Symphony which Perahia led from the podium instead of the piano. The transition from ivories to baton had mixed results. This is not to say Perahia’s piano-less conducting was lacking – just that it is not yet on a par with his real genius on the keyboard.

Idil Biret © Harold Shapiro
Idil Biret
© Harold Shapiro
The second concert featured Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge crisply played by the Academy then a very fine lyrical interpretation of Schubert’s B minor ‘Unfinished’ Symphony. Strings and clarinet were especially impressive. Perahia returned to conducting from the keyboard for Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto which was memorable for an absolutely superb second movement. The intense lyricism of the main subject and nuanced interchange between soloist and ensemble was exceptional. As a real bonus, Perahia played the Fourth Schubert Impromptu as an encore. Once again his gossamer light touch in the opening cascading passages was exemplary. A third evening was an all-Bach recital given by legendary septuagenarian Turkish pianist Idil Biret who had been a child prodigy and protégé of Wilhelm Kempff. Her no-nonsense business-like demeanour at the keyboard belied an exceptional technique and profound musical insight which was especially evident in the First Partita.

Before Murray Perahia’s second concert, Festival Director Yeşim Gürer Oymak made a short speech dedicating the performance to the victims of the bomb attack which happened earlier that day in another part of the city. She also insisted that events such as a celebration of peace through music must never be thwarted by random outbursts of violence which have recently occurred in Europe. In fact security at Hagia Eirene was extremely tight and a large police presence outside the Topkapi Palace certainly reassured those who may have been otherwise apprehensive. One English visitor remarked that she had regularly gone to concerts in London during the IRA bombings in the 1980s and was less dissuaded by terrorists than the alarming acoustics of the Barbican.

As for the magical city on the Bosphorus, it has endured a lot worse in its long history. The current difficulties are sure to pass and the International Istanbul Music Festival will continue to be in the vanguard of securing a culturally enriching future for this intriguing metropolis.