The Istanbul Music Festival celebrates its 45th anniversary this year, but it is not resting on its laurels. The festival organisers are continually seeking new ways to engage with their city and its residents. This lunchtime recital, part of a series entitled “Weekend Classics” was in a new venue for the festival: Babylon, a jazz club housed in Bomontiada, itself a redeveloped former brewery. Plan A had been to hold the event out of doors, but unseasonal weather forced it inside. Even so, the concert achieved its aim, with standing room only in the hall and an audience from all walks of life – including several babies (all of whom remained impressively silent).

Gülru Ensari and Herbert Schuch © Istanbul Music Festival
Gülru Ensari and Herbert Schuch
© Istanbul Music Festival

Programming such an event can be a minefield, but the husband and wife piano duet Gülru Ensari and Herbert Schuch chose a suitably diverse and vibrant selection of works, impressively combining Viennese classics – Brahms and Schubert – with the work of a contemporary Turkish composer – Özkan Manav (who was present) – all characterised by upbeat rhythms and elegant, uncomplicated textures, even with four hands working a single keyboard.

A selection of the Brahms op. 39 Waltzes opened the programme, a collection so iconic it was perhaps hard to avoid. Yet Ensari and Schuch gave performances that spoke more of engagement and passion than obligation. The choice of numbers was also ideal for the occasion, tending toward the more upbeat walzes, but with a few slower ones included for good measure.

That said, the concision and focus of Özkan Manav’s Two Anatolian Dances that followed made Brahms’ waltzes seem needlessly long-winded. My Turkish colleagues vouched for the authenticity of the Manav’s folk idiom, but you don’t need to know the culture to enjoy this music. Manav is more experimental than Brahms in the relationships he proposes between the two players. For example, the work opens and closes with the secondo (Schuch) placing one hand on the piano strings while playing a muffled bass line with the other, providing a contrasting texture to the less inhibited dance melodies above. The music’s generally stable tonality is often compromised by radical bitonal shifts between the two parts – another playful divergence. Similar rhythmic interactions also complicate the relationship, though again, the players usually return to more unified textures after a few phrases.

Schubert provided the closing numbers, his substantial Fantasia in F Minor, D. 940, and “Lebensstürme” Allegro in A Minor, D. 947. The acoustic of the jazz club venue was a little dry for such opulent, melodic music, but Ensari and Schuch gave the textures sufficient weight and substance to fill the hall. However, as with the Brahms, it was hard to escape the feeling that this grand master of the classical tradition could have learned a thing or two from Manav. Schubert’s melodies are beautiful, of course, but he repeats them too often. Still, the players here compensated by highlighting the constantly changing textures beneath (and occasionally above) to maintain the interest.

Manav made a welcome return in the encore, a new work for the unusual, unique even, combination of the four-hand piano and cello. The cellist, Dorukhan Doruk, is an Istanbul native currently making a big impression in Munich. Here he provided a tangy, ethnic flavour to more Turkish folk-inspired music, with Schuch again pressing down the piano strings for a muted, but suitably percussive bass line, and Ensari elaborating the cello line with lightly decorated ornamentation. Ensari and Schuch offered an impressive programme here, diverse but all clearly united by spirited dance rhythms.