There’s an ease with which Can Çakmur communicates that’s rarely found in performers so young. It’s immediately apparent when you hear his playing, but it’s unmissable verbally too – he could easily compere concerts, or present lectures on his projects. We speak breezily on subjects from future marathon ambitions to the work of Theodor Adorno and the perils of wild mushroom foraging.

Can Çakmur

The pianist shot to fame as a 20-year-old, winning the Scottish International Piano Competition in 2017. He went one better a year later, winning the Hamamatsu International Piano Competition, a prize which promised a lasting relationship as well as global plaudits. Çakmur puts a lot down to that support. “Without Hamamatsu, there would have been no career, there would have been no recordings, and there would have been very few concerts,” A return to Japan is on the cards once something approaching normality resumes.

Born in Ankara to a musical family, the Turkish pianist gained a scholarship to travel north to Germany to further his education in 2015. Moving to Germany, and Weimar in particular, meant Çakmur found himself in the cradle of a strong Liszt tradition. Being the city where the virtuoso spent the most prolific compositional period of his life, the influence is there for all to see, in the Liszt House, the Liszt Foundation and the Hochschule für Musik Franz Liszt, where Çakmur now studies. It’s a tradition Çakmur has immersed himself in as a performer; the final of the Hamamatsu Prize saw him tackle the Piano Concerto, switching tack for an impressive recording of the Liszt / Schubert Schwanengesang released late last year.

That tradition is one he wears proudly, but there’s more to Liszt than the flurries of notes and the infamous showmanship, as he explains. “If I could choose to meet one person from music history, it would be Liszt. Yes, he's this genius that we all know, but just to see how he was as a person, both in his attitude towards students and generosity and openness to ideas, but also as an idealist, and somebody who maybe had a vision where art may be heading to beyond his death.”

The Liszt / Schubert project was a striking disc with a charming conception. The memory of discovering Schubert as a child is a vivid one for Çakmur. “I must have been 14. One day I was doing homework and, in the background, there was some Schubert playing. It was the second movement of the G major sonata, the big one. I found it so wicked! I had to listen to the whole thing.” Through Schubert, a life-long love affair with Lieder quickly developed, attached to a single singer. “I asked my father if he had any Schubert song recordings and he happened to have the [Dietrich] Fischer-Dieskau versions – I didn't know who the singer was at that point. Basically, I was crazy about him. Throughout high school I listened only to his recordings and nothing else.” Did he try and emulate Fischer-Dieskau vocally? “No,” Çakmur replies quickly. “I have a horrible voice – you don't want that!”

Knowing as much about the context as possible is a route into finding authenticity in a sound – a historically informed performance which only occasionally brings a switch in instruments. “I try to grasp it as a language,” says Çakmur on parachuting into new eras with every turn. “You not only play what's there, but ideally you're completely comfortable in the style, so you can move in and out freely as you like. This is for Mozart as well as Stravinsky.”

Future projects see Çakmur move away from the core classical repertoire, curating a geographically-based programme that starts with Béla Bartók and takes in the music of George Enescu, as well as two less well-known voices – the Greek composer Dimitri Mitropoulos and Ahmet Adnan Saygun, a member of the ‘Turkish Five’. Despite the warring styles and clashing nationalities, the disc aims for “a peaceful atmosphere beyond all these nationalistic tendencies where the music is something similar between all these regions – I’m trying to find a common point as well as differences.”

The scale of the preparation that goes into Çakmur’s music is impressive. But many could learn from the unfussy way it all comes together. “Old recordings are good to see how little they care about written text, but in a good way – they definitely knew what they were doing. Our approach to the score is so narrow minded, so we see quarter notes and we think they're definitely quarter notes.” What about choosing editions? “I'm very unpicky, and if it's a complete mess I'll just make corrections. If there are slight differences, actually I welcome that – people hear always from the same editions. Say if you're playing some Chopin pieces and if you find a Breitkopf from the 1850s, there are slight differences, which I find very charming. That's all part of being in the language."

Can Çakmur

Inspiration comes from outside the conventional sources too, and Çakmur is quite happy to expand his horizons to shape his performances. One such source is American popular music: “Jelly Roll Morton: he has such a fantastic way of swinging which you can take and apply to French baroque, just like that. There's no better way of hearing the inequalité that Rameau is talking about than in that guy's playing. It's the same thing with rubato and Frank Sinatra. If you can find a source that corresponds directly to what you're looking for, why not use it?”

His sound and level of preparation mean you can almost forget his age, but there’s still room for improvement in his eyes, particularly around relieving tension in performance. “What would be nice would be to go on stage and sit down there without thinking it's a special occasion – it’s about being daring enough to do the things you do on the practice room on stage.” Explaining some of the magic in the music he’s about to perform is one way of combatting the nerves. “For me, it's stress relieving – it means that the audience isn't this faceless monster that's looking at you hungrily. It just becomes something a bit more familiar, a bit more normal.”

Away from music, running provides ample time away from the piano. “I'm terribly passionate about it, but that's a lockdown thing,” he laughs. “There is something soothing about the way that running a half marathon does to your mind.” Çakmur is probably the first person to ever find running a half marathon soothing; perhaps that’s because it all leads back to the music. “It's always helped a lot with concentration and the approach to music. It's all to do with being in the flow. It requires a similar sense of being in the moment while shutting yourself down to outside influences. I think it helps a lot especially if you're running alone – your mind sometimes begins to wander, which is not a good thing, just as it's not a good thing during a performance. They complement each other really well. In both cases, you're doing something emotionally and mentally very taxing.”

The past year has been a setback for young classical stars in the ascendancy, but Çakmur is humble about his situation. “In a way it wasn't too bad. Of course there were many concerts lost, but when you look at the tragedies people have been going through… All my loved ones were healthy and I could live a pretty comfortable life, so I would find it actually pretty wrong to complain about losing concerts, because that's so insignificant compared to whatever drama that was out there. I just took scores home and went "all the 48 Preludes and Fugues, there you go!” That humility extends across his playing and aura – Çakmur is someone you want to collaborate with, and it’s no surprise that he has a burgeoning reputation as a chamber player too. As he continues to be tipped for greatness by an even wider sphere of influence, Çakmur takes it all in his stride.


With the Young Artists To Watch project Bachtrack aims to shine a bright spotlight on deserving artists from all over the world that might not be getting as much visibility as they would have without the limitations caused by the pandemic.

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