There hasn’t been a lot of good news coming out of Turkey in recent times. Something to celebrate however was the opening of the 45th Istanbul Music Festival which this year has the original title of “Unusual”. In the gala opening concert, it seemed tout Istanbul was out in force and the foyer of the Lütfi Kirdar Convention and Exhibition Centre was packed with paparazzi and the beau monde of this fascinating capital on the Bosphorus. Despite being the beginning of Ramadan, there was plenty of wine and cocktails on hand, welcome evidence that secular sensibilities in Turkey are still being maintained, at least in artistic circles.

Sascha Goetzel and the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic
© Ersin Durmus | Istanbul Music Festival

Since 2006 the Festival has been directed by the charismatic Yeşim Gürer Oymak, whose job is far from enviable. Apart from concerns about terrorist activity which marred last year’s Festival and dissuaded many international artists and audiences from coming, there is additional anxiety due to recent political upheavals in the country. Hopefully these issues will soon be in the past but one dilemma that is less likely to be solved any time soon is that the Festival does not have its own dedicated concert hall. For larger events, especially those involving the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic, the Festival is compelled to use the less than optimal facilities of the Convention Centre which is exactly what the name implies. There is no mention of ‘music’ anywhere in the hall’s title. Like many multi-purpose venues, the acoustics in this cavernous 1,700 seat theatre are problematic to say the least. Although the sightlines are not so bad, dryness and lack of resonance makes the sound instantly vanish into the ether.

This was particularly evident in the first item on the programme, which was Sergei Lyapunov’s orchestration of Mily Balakirev’s Islamey. The work was originally composed as a diabolically difficult piece for piano and once favoured by Horowitz (who also wrote his own variations) and more recently Pogorelich, as a bravura encore showpiece. 

The Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sascha Goetzel strived to elicit the kaleidoscope of instrumental colourings from this curious (appropriately “unusual?”) composition for which Balakirev drew on traditional Russian and Tatar folk melodies, but not even a musical Houdini could have escaped from the acoustical straightjacket of the unforgiving Conference centre.

Andrei Ioniţă
© Ersin Durmus | Istanbul Music Festival

The acoustic dilemma was again apparent in Camille Saint-Saëns' Cello Concerto no. 1 in A minor, played by 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition winner, Andrei Ioniţă. At 23 years of age it is probably unreasonable to expect the young Romanian to have the dramatic intensity of Rostropovich, but there were many technical and interpretative triumphs to savour. After a crashing A minor chord from the orchestra, Ioniţă lept into the emphatic opening triplet runs with power and panache and some particularly luscious low notes drawn from his 1671 Rogeri cello. There was honeyed lyricism in the reflective third theme, finely nuanced phrasing with immaculate trills in the contrasting second section minuet and the frenetic triplets in the molto allegro recapitulation were flawlessly executed. This was virtuoso playing with remarkable sensitivity to the nuances of a score – one which Shostakovich particularly admired.

As an encore Ioniţă played a fascinating folk music piece called Chonguri by Georgian composer Sulkhan Tsintsadze who died in 1991. A chongur is an ancient plucked instrument of similar length to a theobor and common to the Caucuses. Ioniţă masterfully transformed the classical cello into an traditional ethnic music instrument with bowless, infectiously rhythmic and percussive playing. Very original and very impressive.

The final item on the relatively short programme was the orchestral tour de force Der Rosenkavalier Suite attributed to Richard Strauss but more likely written by Artur Rodziński in 1945. This was certainly an appropriately sparkling choice for a festive opening concert. Austrian-born Goetzel had the inherent Viennese feel for the protracted second beat in triple time and there was enthusiastic playing from horns in the orgasmic opening whoops. Regrettably later entries were not always so pristine and strings lacked the seductive shimmering sound for which the principal Viennese orchestras are so celebrated. The “Mir ist die Ehre widerfahren” duet allowed for some delicate oboe playing although the “Hab' mir's gelobttrio adaptation was not quite as moving as with the original vocal parts. The subsequent violin solo by concert master Pelin Halkaci Akin displayed commendable phrasing with a well-measured rubato. The concluding rambunctious Act 3 “Ohne mich” waltz with florid flute trilling, snare-drum snapping and raucous ratchet twirling certainly tested the decibel resistance of the hall. Looking a little like Sviatoslav Richter, the wonderfully named timpanist Torino Tudorache had a terrific time pounding out the oomphy Straussian rhythms and flashed and flipped the sticks through the air like a peppy teenage drum major.

A scintillant musical soirée by the magical Bosphorus.