“If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul.” So (almost) wrote Alphonse de Lamartine – the city was still named Constantinople at the time. The cultural stepping stone between Europe and the Middle East, Turkey’s largest city, with its stunning Byzantine architecture, continues to entrance visitors. Founded in 1973, the Istanbul Music Festival originally began as a classical music festival, but has expanded its horizons. Although it covers jazz, theatre and dance, classical is still very much at its core, as a glance at its 43rd festival listing demonstrates. Spanning the whole of June, it attracts key international guests alongside its own illustrious musicians. “Cultural Landscapes” is the festival’s season title and the music straddles different continents and backgrounds as widely as Istanbul straddles the Bosphorus.

The opening and closing concerts are given by the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra. This remarkable orchestra impressed hugely at the BBC Proms last summer. Growing from a chamber orchestra in 2000, it has become Turkey’s leading symphony orchestra, attracting enormous international attention. What better place to catch them than in their own ‘stomping ground’ in programmes bursting with orchestral colour. The world première of Hasan Niyazi Tura’s Symphonic Poem on Battle of Gallipoli kicks off the festival at the Lütfi Kırdar Convention and Exhibition Centre. Commissioned by the festival, the work commemorates the 100th anniversary of the battle during World War I. Russian fare comes in the form of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition with its depiction of works by the composer’s friend, architect and artist Viktor Hartmann. Originally composed for solo piano, Pictures has become a concert favourite through various orchestrations, most notably that of Maurice Ravel.

The Borusan’s closing concert features star pianist Yuja Wang, who performs Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat minor. Principal conductor Sascha Goetzel then takes orchestra and audience on a tour of Rome, courtesy of Respighi’s famous trilogy: Pines of Rome, Fountains of Rome and Roman Festivals. Short on subtlety but big on dynamic impact, they’re the perfect showcase for Goetzel’s vibrant, young orchestra.

Fazil Say is undoubtedly one of Turkey’s classical stars, both as a pianist and as a composer. In this year’s festival, he traverses all 18 of Mozart’s solo Piano Sonatas, performed in four different venues, including the Hagia Triada Monastery on the nearby island of Heybeliada. Say’s interpretations reveal him as a thoughtful, intelligent artist, but one who dares to take risks in his playing. His take on Mozart should be fascinating.

Another risk-taking artist – and one who has collaborated with Fazil Say – is Patricia Kopatchinskaja. In Istanbul, she teams up with Polina Leschenko and Argentinian cellist Sol Gabetta for an intriguing programme of sonatas and trios, including Brahms and Fauré.

The Borodin Quartet celebrates its 70th birthday this year. Part of its international tour takes it to Istanbul to perform both of Dvořák’s piano quintets, with pianist Boris Berezovsky. These are examples of early and late works by Dvořák. In fact, the Op.81 quintet grew out of a dissatisfaction with the earlier work. Initially, he wanted to revise it (hence both being in the same key), but he ended up composing an entirely new work. Was Dvořák being too hard on his Op.5? Judge for yourself at the concert.

Different landscapes are evoked in Kremerata Baltica’s programme: Russian Seasons vs American Seasons crosses musical borders… with no Vivaldi Four Seasons in sight! Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buonos Aires is matched against Philip Glass’ Violin Concerto no. 2 “The Amercian Four Seasons”, and interspersed with excerpts from Alexander Raskatov’s Seasons Digest. Glass’ concerto will feature video installations produced by multimedia artists including Jonas Mekas, the legendary filmmaker, poet and artist who has often been dubbed “the godfather of American avant-garde cinema”.

Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt takes concertgoers to Spain for a programme which switches between Domenico Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas and later piano fare from Granados, Albéniz and Falla. Daniil Trifonov, another star pianist, joins the Moscow Soloists for Chopin’s Piano Concerto no. 1. Led by Yuri Bashmet, the Soloists will also play the string orchestra arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s sunny Souvenir de Florence.

The Hagia Eirene Museum hosts the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra for an all-Mozart concert, which includes the Violin Concerto no. 5, nicknamed “the Turkish” for its percussive bowing effects in the final movement. Arabella Steinbacher is the soloist. From Mozart to Brahms, Paavo Jarvi brings the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen for a pair of all-Brahms concerts. Christian Tetzlaff tackles the Violin Concerto in D major and Lars Vogt plays the autumnal Piano Concerto no. 2 in B flat major, while Jarvi adds the First and Fourth symphonies.

En route, why not take in “Dancing Paris”, the title of an entertaining programme featuring the Alliage Saxophone Quintet, pianist Jang Eun Bae and violinist József Lendvay. Opening with Bernstein’s Candide, they eventually reach Gershwin’s American in Paris by way of Darius Milhaud’s raucously fun Le boeuf sur le toit among other delights.

With such varied musical and cultural landscapes, there’s something at the Istanbul Music Festival to suit all tastes.


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This article was sponsored by the International Istanbul Music Festival.