Grand Bazaar, İstanbul © Benek Özmez
Grand Bazaar, İstanbul
© Benek Özmez
Family Bonds is the subtitle for the 46th edition of the Istanbul Music Festival and when you’ve got not one, but two sets of Turkish pianist identical twins performing, why not? Other family ties include the Skride sisters, husband and wife opera singers Diana Damrau and Nicolas Testé and the Maisky family, turning the festival into something of a family affair. The three-week festival is a highlight of the Turkish classical year, attracting a huge number of visitors, with opportunities to explore this fascinating capital city – a melting pot of influences and cultures – as well as soak up music in wonderful locations.

The resident orchestra at the festival is the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra, long praised on these pages under its flamboyant conductor Sascha Goetzel in exotic, colourful scores. Goetzel and the Borusan open proceedings with a special gala concert which follows cocktails and an award ceremony. Star of the show is young Korean pianist Yekwon Sunwoo, Gold Medal winner at the XV Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. He plays – appropriately enough given Cliburn’s fame in tackling big Russian concertos – Rachmaninov’s Third, a massive work requiring a massive technique. And to roll out the big guns, cannon effects will be needed in Tchaikovsky’s celebratory 1812 Overture which concludes the evening.

Aya Irini © IKSV
Aya Irini

Another local ensemble – the Tekfen Philharmonic Orchestra – plays the second festival programme. Founded in 1992 under the name the Black Sea Chamber Orchestra, the ensemble gathers musicians from many countries across the Caspian region. In Istanbul, it plays Rachmaninov’s demonic Symphonic Dances under Aziz Shokhakimov, with Charlie Siem the soloist in Brahms’ Violin Concerto.

The festival has a number of visiting orchestras, none starrier than the Filarmonica della Scala, recently praised for its concerts in London, Paris and Milan for its sparkling playing under Riccardo Chailly and Myung-whun Chung. Daniel Harding conducts in Istanbul, where the focus will be on young Russian superstar pianist Daniil Trifonov, who performs Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto. Trifonov was part of Valery Gergiev’s “tag team” at the BBC Proms, when all five concertos were played on the same remarkable evening, and “poetry cascaded from Trifonov’s fingers, pearly rivulets of sound”. Among other starry names billed, Joyce DiDonato brings her War and Peace programme to the Hagia Eirene Museum, while Diana Damrau and Nicolas Testé sing an evening of Verdi with the Borusan.

More modest in size than the Scala, the Amsterdam Sinfonietta and English Chamber Orchestra both offer stylish nods to Classical and Baroque repertoire in their programmes. The ECO, under Gerard Schwarz, plays Beethoven’s Symphony no. 8 in F major along with two 20th-century works which, to some extent, ape ‘classical’ style: Prokofiev’s First Symphony and Poulenc’s Concerto for two pianos, where the lyrical middle movement is practically Mozart. Güher Pekinel and Süher Pekinel tackle the Poulenc, whose outer movements strut in unmistakably French fashion. The Amsterdam Sinfonietta’s programme also includes a two-piano work played by Turkish identical twins! Ferhan and Ferzan Önder play Bach and also give the Turkish première of Dobrinka Tabakova’s Concerto for Two Pianos, Percussion and Strings “Together Remember to Dance”, a festival co-commission. The Bulgarian-born composer has lived in London for the past 25 years and was last year made Composer in Residence at the BBC Concert Orchestra.

Ashkenazi Synagogue © IKSV
Ashkenazi Synagogue

There is plenty of excellent quality chamber music on offer over the three weeks. Khatia Buniatishvili and Renaud Capuçon lead the way with a tempting programme of violin sonatas by Grieg and César Franck. The Skride Quartet, led by violinist Baiba Skride, includes rare repertory by Frank Bridge alongside more familiar Mozart and Brahms. Cellist Mischa Maisky is due to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award before his concert with the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra, while a later recital sees him team up with Maxim Rysanov, daughter Lily and son Sascha for piano trios and quartets by Mahler, Shostakovich and Schumann.

Many venues are used for festival concerts, from the main hall at the Lütfi Kırdar International Convention and Exhibition Centre to the Hagia Eirene Museum. An excellent way of seeing the city is to take part in the festival’s Music Route which this season takes listeners on a journey around the Galata quarter of Istanbul with recitals in churches and synagogues throughout the day. Earlier in the festival, meet in the Grand Bazaar to experience the Sounds of Istanbul, curated by qanun virtuoso Hakan Güngör, exploring the music of Istanbul and its heritage of different cultures, with Turkish, Greek, Macedonian, Armenian, Syriac, Sephardic, Hebrew and Afghan music and improvisations… a great way to soak up traditional culture that makes up this fascinating city.

Click here to view all events in the festival. 

This preview was sponsored by the Istanbul Music Festival