During 2020, the whole world seems to be celebrating Beethoven and Istanbul is no exception. The 48th edition of the Istanbul Music Festival pays proper tribute to Ludwig with a broad palette of works ranging from concertos and mighty symphonies to the intimacy of the piano sonatas and the profound intensity of his string quartets.

Hagia Sophia and Sultan Ahmed Mosque © Daniel Burka
Hagia Sophia and Sultan Ahmed Mosque
© Daniel Burka

Beethoven rules right from the festival’s opening salvo. Although Fidelio was his sole opera, he ended up composing four separate overtures for it (perhaps he couldn’t make up his mind!), but it’s the one entitled Fidelio which kicks off the festival, before Stella Chen performs Beethoven’s only Violin Concerto. Aziz Shokhakimov conducts the Tekfen Philharmonic, repeating last year’s honour of opening the festival. It’s not quite all-Beethoven though, with George Enescu’s First Romanian Rhapsody adding some exotic spice to the menu.

Idil Biret is one of Turkey’s finest pianists, her international reputation secured in the 1980s when she recorded vast amounts of the piano repertoire for Naxos. On 6th June, Biret presents two all-Beethoven programmes in the Cemal Reşit Rey Concert Hall, each featuring solo piano works including the Waldstein Sonata and Franz Liszt’s transcription of the First Symphony. The evening also includes broadcasts of Biret performing two piano concertos (the Fourth and the Emperor) with the Bilkent Symphony Orchestra.

Beethoven’s string quartets are also represented, performed by the Sellini Quartet, the Borodin Quartet (celebrating its 75th anniversary), and the Artemis Quartet. Other Beethovenian highlights include the iconic Fifth Symphony (the Orchestra of the Swan) and the Emperor Piano Concerto (Emanuel Ax with the Dresden Staatskapelle). But the most intriguing programme comes from the Orchester Wiener Akademie under Martin Haselböck, which precedes the invigorating Seventh Symphony with excerpts from the incidental music to Goethe’s heroic play, Egmont and the concert aria Ah! perfido.

On the Music Route © Ali Guler
On the Music Route
© Ali Guler
On the Music Route © Ali Guler
On the Music Route
© Ali Guler

The “Music Route” is always a popular feature of the Istanbul Music Festival. The neat concept is that listeners on the route take a journey across a particular district of Istanbul, calling in at three or four venues to enjoy a chamber concert at each stop. It’s a great way to see the city and to enjoy music in unusual venues – previous editions have called in to hear traditional Turkish music at Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar among other locations! This year’s venues are all on the island of Büyükada, the largest of the nine “Princes' Islands” in the Sea of Marmara.

To hear some Turkish classical music, head to the Istanbul Archaeological Museums for a chamber recital that juxtaposes Beethoven with Dede Efendi (the most prolific composer of the Ottoman era) and Selim III, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1789 to 1807. The recital then brings us bang up to date with the world premiere of Turgay Erdener’s Nonet Pastoral “alla turca”, commissioned by the festival.

More new music comes from Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks whose Sixth String Quartet, a festival co-commission, receives its Turkish premiere by the Artemis Quartet at the Surp Vosgeperan Armenian Catholic Church. Shokhakimov and the Tekfen Philharmonic perform the world premiere of Hasan Uçarsu’s orchestral work The Land Loves People Each and Every One.

I Solisti Veneti take listeners on a journey across the Alps. From three Bach keyboard works, performed by magician of the harpsichord Mahan Esfahani, we head south to Italy and works by Nino Rota, Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari and Ottorino Respighi, the latter’s Ancient Airs and Dances based on Renaissance lute works.

Süreyya Opera House © Ali Guler
Süreyya Opera House
© Ali Guler

Among the ensembles visiting Istanbul are two German star orchestras. Myung-whun Chung conducts the Staatskapelle Dresden in Beethoven and Brahms, the latter’s Fourth Symphony one of the most cherished in the Romantic repertoire. The Konzerthausorchester Berlin, conducted by Elim Chan, has the honour of closing the festival, pairing Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony with Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto, where they are joined by Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson. But Turkey has its own very fine orchestras. The Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic has made a big impression on the classical music world in recent years. Under Kahchun Wong it tackles a monster of the fin de siècle, Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. This mighty song cycle – described by Leonard Bernstein as Mahler's “greatest symphony” – is the penultimate performance in the festival. Wong opts for the tenor/baritone version, inviting soloists Michael Schade and Thomas Hampson. The finale, a 30-minute setting Der Abschied (The Farewell) is especially moving, drawn from two Chinese poems, both involving the theme of leave-taking. There will hardly be a dry eye left in the Lütfi Kırdar International Convention and Exhibition Centre by the close.

Click here for all the events of the festival.

This article is sponsored by the Istanbul Music Festival.