© Johannes Hafner | Wikicommons
© Johannes Hafner | Wikicommons
What links Julius Caesar, Pericles and Troilus and Cressida? Along with The Comedy of Errors, they are all Shakespeare plays set – at least partially – in modern day Turkey, so it’s fitting that the Istanbul Music Festival marks 400 years since the Bard’s death in its 2016 season. Ten works inspired by Shakespeare are scattered across the month of June, performed by a variety of ensembles.

© The Orchestra of the Swan
© The Orchestra of the Swan
The Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic has been the festival’s resident orchestra since 2006, but among the many guest artists and ensembles visiting this year is a very special one: The Orchestra of the Swan, based in Shakespeare’s home town of Stratford-upon-Avon. Founded in 1995, it is a relatively young professional chamber orchestra. Appropriately, it brings a work inspired by Shakespeare – Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. With its gossamer strings representing the fairies, the score is a delight. It is paired in concert with Mendelssohn’s equally brilliant Violin Concerto, where the soloist is young British violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen. Although it bursts with glorious melodies, the concerto didn’t come easily, taking Mendelssohn six years to compose.

The Borusan IPO opens the festival with Shostakovich’s music for a 1964 film version of Hamlet, directed by Grigori Kozintsev, with a Russian translation by Boris Pasternak (of Dr Zhivago fame). Shostakovich wrote for well over 30 films during his career (including one to King Lear, his final film score). As you may imagine, his music to Hamlet is full of power and intensity, well above some of the trite music composed for Soviet propaganda films earlier in his career. Preceding Hamlet comes Tchaikovsky’s popular First Piano Concerto, performed by Russian soloist Dmitry Masleev.

Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic at the BBC Proms © Özge Balkan
Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic at the BBC Proms
© Özge Balkan

Alexei Volodin gives a piano recital with a difference, an intriguing marriage of words and music. “If music be the food of love, play on” is the title, hinting at the Shakespeare contained within. Prokofiev’s Ten Pieces from Romeo and Juliet opens the programme, which is linked by Turkish actor and screenwriter Mert Firat. Mendelssohn’s Dream is represented, via Sergei Rachmaninov’s dazzling transcription of the Scherzo, and one of Nikolai Medtner’s Fairy Tales based on an episode in King Lear. But it’s not all led by the Bard. The recital closes with Rachmaninov’s Piano Sonata no. 1, originally inspired by Goethe’s Faust.

Casting Shakespeare aside for the moment, there are plenty of other excellent concerts and recitals on the programme. Last season’s festival featured a series of concerts by Fazil Say. This year, another Turkish pianist of international repute, Idil Biret, performs three recitals. The Süreyya Opera House hosts a weighty recital featuring Schubert and Liszt, including the latter’s tempestuous B minor Piano Sonata. Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit and Stravinsky’s Petrushka provide Biret with plenty of drama at the Boğaziçi University, while Istanbul’s Hagia Eirene Museum is the scene for something more tranquil – a programme devoted to Bach’s keyboard music.

Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires is as asset to any festival and in Istanbul she joins up with Brazilian cellist Antonio Meneses for a fine programme of Brahms and Beethoven, bolstered by Falla’s Suite populaire espagnole.

Another famed pianist arrives with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields. Murray Perahia has a long association with the chamber orchestra and performs concertos by Mozart and Beethoven in their two programmes, as well as conducting symphonies by Schumann and Schubert.

Vienna Symphony Orchestra © Andreas Balon
Vienna Symphony Orchestra
© Andreas Balon
Star Russian violinist Maxim Vengerov is Ambassador and visiting Professor of the International Menuhin Academy (IMMA) in Switzerland. He performs a busy programme of concertante works with the Menuhin Academy Soloists, including showstoppers by Saint-Saëns. Of the vocal works on the programme, soprano Angel Blue singing Strauss’ Four Last Songs with the Borusan Philharmonic is a definite highlight.

Returning to the Bard, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture takes pride of place in the Warsaw Philharmonic’s programme (also notable for the Turkish première of Weinberg’s Fourth Symphony), while another Tchaikovsky/Shakespeare work – The Tempest – is in the closing concert, performed by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. Alice Sara Ott performs Liszt’s devilish Piano Concerto no. 2 in A major – a work where she’s impressed enormously in London – while young Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado closes the festival in sunny mood with Antonín Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony.