It would be hard to imagine a concert setting more spectacular or historically significant than the 4th-century basilica of Hagia Eirene in the luxuriant gardens of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. Pre-dating the more famous Hagia Sophia just across the imposing walls, the minimally adorned brick structure has a grace and simplicity not always evident in later Orthodox places of worship. The Istanbul Music Festival has been using the 1,000 seat venue for concerts since 1980 and it is undoubtedly the jewel in the diadem of dazzling sites which abound in this magical metropolis.

Alina Pogostkina © Benek Ozmuz
Alina Pogostkina
© Benek Ozmuz

Entering Topkapi Palace through the majestic Imperial Gate, the regrettable realities of modern day life became jarringly evident. Metal detectors, armed soldiers and a plethora of security guards testified that Istanbul Festival organizers view safety of musicians and audience as their paramount concern. In fact, it would be difficult to find a more secure location within the bustling former Byzantine capital. Strolling amiably though the perfumed rose gardens during the interval, members of the London Chamber Orchestra seemed closer to bucolic Glyndebourne than the strepitous shores of the Bosphorus.

An all-Beethoven programme was the first offering at the Hagia Eirene in this year’s Unusual Festival and augured well for future events. Alina Pogostkina opened the evening with the Violin Concerto conducted by the musically meticulous Christopher Warren-Green.  Pogostkina’s performance was perhaps more contemplative than confrontational, although there was plenty of fire in the cadenzas. Despite intrusive D and A natural crotchets on the timpani at the outset which should have been struck piano, the London Chamber Orchestra responded diligently to Warren-Green’s direction, which was generally solicitous to the soloist. There was better balance between violin with clarinet and oboe in the initial recapitulation of the main theme and commendable rhythmic consistency, although Warren-Green’s tempi were quite brisk. Pogostkina displayed judiciously restrained vibrato throughout with some admirably controlled trilling on the ascending 12-measure scale passage. Her semi-quaver runs were meticulously even, doubling stopping exact and embellishments unobtrusive although the powerful first movement tended to be a little more restrained than rhapsodic.

As if intentionally responding to Warren-Green’s opening downbeat in the pianissimo Larghetto movement, a cannon shot was fired heralding the end of the day’s Ramadan fasting. This was followed almost simultaneously by a particularly vociferous muezzin performing the call to prayer at a nearby mosque. Astoundingly unfazed, both soloist and orchestra continued as if the melismatic obbligato was part of the autograph score. Later Warren-Green remarked that the aural intrusion only underlined the rich multicultural tapestry of this polyglot metropolis. One wonders how many other maestros would have remained so sanguine. Pogostkina was similarly unperturbed and the opening arpeggios had a lustrous and limpid sonority. The Larghetto led effortlessly into the concluding Rondo – this time senza muezzin – which was played with jaunty joviality by both soloist and orchestra.

As an encore, Pogostkina chose the popular Gavotte en Rondo from Bach’s third Partita, providing ample evidence of the formidable musicianship which won her the Sibelius Competition in 2005.

Given the availability of cannon fire, it would perhaps have been more appropriate to perform the Tchaikovsky 1812 Overture in the second half, however Warren-Green opted for Beethoven’s only slightly less bellicose "Eroica" Symphony. Leonard Bernstein enthused that this ground-breaking opus contained "perhaps the greatest two movements in all symphonic music" and Warren-Green’s ebullient circular baton technique elicited some excitingly crisp playing from the LCO. The requisite dissonance, angst and tension in the lengthy Allegro con brio movement was achieved through hammered syncopation, heavy marcato chordal tuttis, crashing sforzandi and subtle variation in dynamics. First clarinet and flute were impressive and the dissonant solo horn entry recapitulating the main E flat major theme at the end of the development section was beautifully brazen.

The Marcia funebre has been extracted for endless sombre occasions ranging from Mendelssohn’s funeral to commemorating the assassination of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. Although suitably solemn, Warren-Green’s reading was far from sentimental and the LCO strings excelled in creating a mellifluous, sedate sonority. The Allegro vivace scherzo enlivened the mood and there was again some fine brass playing, especially in the unusual scoring for three horns. Beethoven did a bit of rehashing of his earlier compositions in the variations which form the last movement. Nevertheless, the fugal treatment of the principal theme was notable for its clarity of instrumental texture and there were again some exuberant sforzandi and crescendi. Players and conductor seemed to relish the bolt to the finishing line in the Presto coda. A thoroughly commendable performance by the LCO.

***11