Alain Matalon reports from 2013’s Bach in Istanbul Festival, which ran from 10 October to 2 November at various venues around Istanbul.

The light-hearted poster designed for the Bach In Istanbul Festival – reimagining Haussmann’s classic Bach portrait from 1746 in a new light where, instead of a piece of music, the composer holds a traditional Turkish tea glass – must have found its audience in a youthful crowd, since the first thing that caught my attention as I walked in the courtyard of Saint Antione Church for my first concert of the series was that the audience was considerably younger than the norm here in Istanbul.

I know it’s a cliché to talk about the profile of the prevailing classical music concert-goers: that they are older, traditional and, more often than not, big time three-B lovers. The situation in Turkey, however, goes beyond that. The aficionados here are not grouped simply by the genre(s) they prefer; they are further divided by venues – each, more or less, has its own attendees, series, and even organizations – down to who the sponsors are. It’s a well-known, but little talked-about affair. There are people I know who, in some cases, decide whether to attend a concert (or not) based on the anticipated audience.

In that regard, Bach in Istanbul, celebrating its 10th year in 2013, is one of the few organizations that has managed to build an enthusiastic follower base that transcends the obvious and, while predominantly young, attracts a nice blend of people from all walks of life. The festival’s success can be largely attributed to the musicians that they bring: Baroque keyboard masters such as Gustav Leonhardt, Andreas Staier and Pierre Hantaï, modern crossover ensembles like the Jacques Loussier Trio, as well as newcomers to the European Bach scene, have graced the audience with their music. The festival’s choice of venues is another plus for its popularity. Most concerts are held in simply beautiful, even if not acoustically pleasing, settings that include the Hagia Irene, the St Antoine Church, Sirkeci Train Station, and the historic Prince’s Islands. By disrupting the conventional concert-goer’s spatial comfort zone, this festival seems to have created a heterogeneous bunch that cares more about the music and less about its extracurriculars.

Monday evening’s concert featured the Romanian violinist Alexandru Tomescu in a solo appearance featuring J.S. Bach’s partitas and sonatas for violin, and it was held at St Antoine Church in Beyoglu, the heart of Istanbul’s cultural life. The space, of course, is majestic and spiritual enough to reflect Bach’s majesty and spirit – except the composer’s music in this genre is personal and intimate. Mr Tomescu’s relaxed and leisurely take on his chosen repertoire was a stark contrast against the atmosphere, allowing us to focus on the music and not go about trying to make unmerited associations with the space. The evening started with the G minor Sonata BWV 1001, in whose opening Adagio Mr Tomescu demonstrated his ability for tackling Bach’s simultaneous melodic lines. As much as the material is prone to lend itself to it, the musician refrained from sounding melodramatic and instead gave us a clear (as clear as can be under the Church’s mega-acoustics) reading. The soloist’s aptitude for parallel lines became even clearer during the Fuga. He seemed to take unusual bow angles to make the lower register sound on par with the high, but the effort was worth it. Alexandru Tomescu’s laid-back style did have other consequences, however: his dance-like movements did not pump enough rhythm, whether in the gentle Siciliano of the G minor or the final Allegro of the A minor.

The BWV 1002 A minor Sonata, which opens almost identically to the G minor, is the technically more demanding one. But contrary to its sister, the melodic lines in its first movement are sharp and pointy. They make more musical sense when they are presented as detached statements rather than dissolving into each other. Thus, Mr Tomescu’s laid-back technique and his abstinence from using dynamics as a melodic tool, coupled with the reverberation in the hall, ended up sounding a little flat at times. But when the time came to work his fingers into the dense texture of the Fugue, the violinist was ready to step up and give us a relentless and unyielding reading with rich lines and a forward momentum. His Andante swayed towards the romantic side, which I personally endorse, as the movement is essentially a respite between the Fugue and the ensuing toccata-like Allegro.

The second half of the evening was dedicated to the magnificent D minor Partita, BWV 1004. The Partita is, of course, one of the epitomes of Bach’s creations in both its musical and technical scopes. Its famous Chaconne has even been said to “condense the whole of life into 14 or so minutes”. Listening to it from a competent player is, for me, one of the most spiritual experiences a person can go through. Alexandru Tomescu was not here to lead us through an epiphany, however, and he gave a straightforward reading of the piece – and the Chaconne in particular – that was at times reminiscent of Nathan Milstein. He kept his vibrato at an absolute minimum while jumping through all the technical obstacles with ease. No wonder Mr Tomescu defines himself as a Paganini specialist; he excels at devilishly fast passages and he even looked like he couldn’t wait for the central major episode to be over before he could get back to the outer movement once again.

Bach’s works for solo violin are emotionally draining pieces – so much more than his oeuvre for other solo instruments. Listening to three of them in a row can be taxing on the audience both psychologically and intellectually. Alexandru Tomescu’s varied style, generally treading on the lighter side, left no such effect. It was a musically, emotionally and intellectually satisfying evening.

Venue-hopping in Istanbul can be a real drag. The second event I had planned to go for the Festival was Konstantin Lifschitz’s piano recital, in which he would play the Goldberg Variations. It was not to be, alas, as the concert date coincided with a Turkish national holiday. The city’s evening festivities were held close to concert venue by the Bosporus, effectively bringing the traffic around the district to a standstill. I ended up spending the evening trying to get to the concert inside a taxi cab, listening to the Goldberg Variations on headphones and watching the fireworks from afar.

My third evening, which featured Russian cellist Alexander Rudin along with Turkish pianist Hüseyin Sermet, offered a more varied program. The venue, this time, was the Hagia Irene Church within the Topkapi Palace complex. There is no denying the brilliant atmosphere of the hall, but it does leave a lot to be desired acoustically – thanks to its 35m-high dome and many pillars and columns, not to mention its indented old stone walls. The place is still fine for small ensembles, especially of varied kinds where timbres from the instruments are remote enough to have resonances of their own. A cello and a piano, for example.

The opener for the evening was Alexander Rudin appearing alone to play Bach’s Cello Sonata no. 6 in D major, BWV 1012. The suite is Bach’s most developed and stimulating one for the instrument, almost light years ahead of the first. In the opening Prelude, Mr Rudin employed masterful dynamics to realize Bach’s melodic question/answer episodes and the echo effect that he employs in key musical statements. The cellist followed that with a graceful Allemande in a subtle vibrato a singing tone. The technical difficulties of the perpetual Courante was delivered with elaborate finger work followed by another elegant dance in the Sarabande. In the suite’s most interesting movement, the Gavotte, Alexander Rudin used tactical embellishments and made exceptional use of slides in the lower register, keeping the music in constant motion. In the Gigue, the culmination of the performer’s techniques surfaced as one unified body where Bach’s contrapuntal concurrent lines, rhythmic pulse and sweet melodies were served with taste as well as sufficient vigor.

Next came Hüseyin Sermet, with a curious choice for his solo piano part. The C major Prelude and Fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1 is fine if you are going to follow it with a lot more. But the only other solo piece Mr Sermet had in store for us was another prelude and fugue from Book 1 – and the B flat minor one at that. I found his selection to be puzzling, because the C major is little more than a door that opens into the genius of Bach. It’s a teaser that leaves you wondering what else is next to come. The pianist, however, preferred to treat the work as a standalone piece and turned it into a dramatic, almost thespian affair by playing it at an extremely drawn-out tempo with undue pedal, dynamics and an over-expressive flair. Every broken-chord progression was treated with a faux-romanticism that is simply not there. Furthermore, the first two notes of every sentence were disjointed from the rest, causing the music to come to a full stop after only two letters. I must say, Mr Sermet’s could have been the only disappointing performance of the piece I have ever come across, whether it be from a concert pianist or a piano student. His fugue followed the same pattern: although all of the four the voices were audible, his treatment of the melodic lines were painful.

The B flat minor Prelude and Fugue was a relatively more plausible choice – at least as far as the atmosphere is concerned. The prelude, which can easily be conceived as a chorale, carries much of the characteristics of Bach’s sacred music. It’s grave, humble and very much structured. Mr Sermet, however, was determined to make something else out of it. He used a wide range of dynamics to intentionally convey a somber mood, disregarding the fact that the prelude, in fact, is a build-up towards the fugue. Employing dynamics makes more sense when it’s used more sensibly here – like a slowly rising crescendo which dissolves into ether at the end.

The two musicians joined on stage for the second half to play two cello sonatas. The first was Shostakovich’s Op. 40 in D minor. Stalin, if he had heard the opening measures of the cello before its première, would most certainly ban it for good. The way the music starts, with the yearning piano arpeggios and the sweet cello melody would definitely be deemed “too bourgeois”. Shostakovich does not linger on the easily accessible for much longer, however, and drives the music towards a cat-and-mouse episode between the piano and the cello. The duo were in perfect sync during the movement, and the interplay between them was playful and joyous. The perpetuum mobile second movement, played energetically and with much verve, gave way to a despairing and dark slow movement. It was here where Mr Sermet’s piano sounded most characteristic. He gradually dampened his instrument to imitate the growing desolation and he fittingly allowed the final notes to die in silence. Mr Rudin, on the other hand, took the helm for the final movement. Shostakovich’s bitingly ironic Rondo was brought to life by Mr Rudin’s alternately brilliant and pale readings of the theme.

The evening came to a close with the unfairly brief, and in this instance, wonderfully well played, Debussy Cello Sonata. Both musicians were alert to the composer’s unorthodox writing for the two instruments where they are supposed to sound as if they are playing two different pieces. There is, of course, a continuous thematic relationship between them, and often times one instruments acts as an ornamentation for the other.

In a way, Debussy’s piece was a metaphor for the evening: two musicians playing separately but together, and together.

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