The mixed fare that Istanbul State Symphony Orchestra and conductor Christopher Warren-Green had prepared for us this evening included works by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Grieg, Ravel and Debussy. It was quite a heavy undertaking that was delivered with mixed results.

The funeral march from Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony which opened the programme was dedicated to the memory of the miners who died in Soma, Turkey a month ago. ISSO’s balanced sound driven by Mr Warren-Green’s extraordinarily slow pace, managed to bring out the solemn spirit of Beethoven’s march not to mention the occasion for which it was played. The conductor further sustained the heavy air with a moment of silence before moving on to a pleasant reading of Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture ("Fingal's Cave"), Op.26. The presentation of the work highlighted the conductor’s aptitude in dynamic control. Mendelssohn’s invoking of the silence of the caves in contrast to the roaring seas outside were realized through Mr Warren-Green’s impeccable choices for directing his orchestra towards various levels of volume and intensity.

Nelson Freire © Mat Hennek | CAMI
Nelson Freire
© Mat Hennek | CAMI

My first impression of Grieg’s popular Piano Concerto in A minor came from the demo cassette that Sony had included with the first version of their Walkman device. I remember distinctly how I marvelled at the impossibly small cassette player before taking the headphones out of the box, putting them over my ears and pressing the metallic play button. In poured the timpani roll and Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra’s hit in A minor followed by Hiroko Nakamura’s octaves. That recording, which I must have listened to hundreds of times, has left such a lasting imprint in me that, to this day, I continue to opt for performances that are reminiscent of that experience: sharp, hard-hitting and tempestuous. While it would be hard to describe Nelson Freire’s take on the concerto by any of those adjectives, what he gave us tonight was quite a personal and remarkable one. Starting off with perfectly hit octaves and scale runs followed by elegantly handles flourishes of the main theme all signalled towards a triumphant performance. Although his touch was a little too soft during the initial solo passages, Mr Freire geared towards a passionate reading of the final reprise, showcasing the many possibilities to approach Grieg’s material. Except for a slightly out of tune trombone, this was a pretty successful performance by the seasoned ISSO. The soloist and Mr Warren-Green did not exactly see eye to eye during the lyrical Adagio. Mr Freire seemed to be going for a faster take here, eyeing the conductor frequently who kept his orchestra muted and dragging which resulted in a somewhat stiff performance. Things got much better at the final movement, however. We were treated to a powerful Allegro with Mr Freire’s exemplary dance rhythms echoing in every part of the orchestra. The pianist came back on stage for one of his staple encore pieces: Sgambati’s transcription of “Mort d’Orphée” from Gluck’s opera Orphée et Eurydice.

The second half of the evening, dedicated to French impressionist masters, started with Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite. We witnessed a much looser and confident orchestra here, giving the audience a leisurely Pavane, a serious March along with an excellent representation of the composer’s masterfully orchestrated hesitant Valse dance. ISSO’s reading of the Suite culminated in a romantic and lush “Le jardin féerique”.

Debussy’s La Mer which closed the evening was, unfortunately, not as competent. The orchestra sounded thin during the opening movement. Debussy’s dense orchestration was treated almost superfluously in which the music simply did not flow. The Allegro had its moments of brilliance – particularly in the initial thrilling moments depicting the rising of the waves and the flute passages in the quiet and ambiguous ending. But Mr Warren-Green’s overemphasizing of the brass (which, unfortunately seemed to be having an off night) led to a less than spectacular performance here as well. ISSO ended the evening on a positive note through a successful execution of the sweeping legato motif of La Mer’s final movement, clouded only, once again, by the flat brass. Perhaps the best way to describe this evening’s Debussy is to quote a fellow member of the audience complaining to her friend on her way out: “I tried hard to visualize the sea as I listened, but I simply couldn’t”.