Istanbul Music Festival’s customary world première this year featured celebrated American–Armenian viola player Kim Kashkashian and Hungarian pianist Peter Nagy in a temporally and spatially eclectic programme.

Kim Kashkashian © Steve Riskind
Kim Kashkashian
© Steve Riskind

Leave it to Bach to compose music that sounds impeccable no matter what instrument it is played with. Tonight’s opener, the Sonata in G for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord BWV1027, played on viola and piano, was a good example: although the diminished tonal contrast between the two instruments made the music a little claustrophobic, particularly in the Andante. Kashkashian and Nagy were a very amenable duo, neither of them overshadowing the other, both working towards (and successfully achieving) a regal reading of the sonata. Their first movement, no doubt helped by the relative lenience of Ms Kashkashian’s viola playing style was lighthearted. This movement surely sounds heavier when played on the cello, and perhaps that’s what it is supposed to sound like, but the glide into the lively Allegro of the second movement sounds less pronounced on the viola. Here, the music shone, featuring Nagy’s bright tone as his right hand took the additional role of the second flute (the instrument Bach had originally conceived the sonata for) and we could literally hear three voices at work under his contrapuntally proficient hands. The Andante, however, by the merit of its comparatively tight compositional structure further narrowed by the tonal proximity of the two instruments, sounded one-dimensional, and thus lacked its usual emotional weight. When the music swelled back in the final Allegro, all was good again and the duo smoothly covered Bach’s anxious eighth note patterns in perfect unison and his counterpoint on full display.

For its attendees, Istanbul Music Festival’s world premières are always something special to look forward to, and this year was no different. Tigran Mansurian’s new composition: In memoriam Komitas Vardapet, Sonata da Chiesa for Viola and Piano, commissioned by Istanbul Music Festival is a two movement work, composed true to its genre as a “transitional piece to be performed at a religious ceremony” –even if only in philosophy. The composer says he thought of other meanings of the word “transition” while composing the piece, such as “the transition from Baroque sonata to later forms”. This characteristic manifests itself in the  Tranquillo movement. The music here is firmly rooted in a main key and it doesn’t wander off much, but there is a sense of development as themes are passed back and forth between the viola and the piano, slowly going through a transitioning. The more prominent role in this movement was delegated to the viola, and Kashkashian gave the music a warm character even during the occasional interjectory harsh deluges from the piano. The second movement was even more interesting. Written as an Andante, but played tonight at an even slower tempo, the music evoked in me a reference to a transition between life and death. The whole movement was composed in a way that it could end at any time. Made up of short phrases and passages that simultaneously work as a coherent whole and as stand-alone musical ideas on their own, it was a masterfully written piece of music realized brilliantly. There was less of earlier Mansurian’s restless and confronting style, and more traces of his more recent tranquil work such as his Requiem.

The second half of the evening started with Bartok’s Rhapsody no. 1. Kashkashian gave the music a jumpy start with the gypsy melody while Nagy assumed the accompanying role. The middle lament section was given more weight as the duo slowed down for a grave, almost funereal reading. The second movement was lively and spirited throughout. Kashkashian brought out the improvisatory nature of the composer’s fiddle melodies, syncopating and taking liberties with fermatas.

The final section of the concert was dedicated to a selection from Komitas’ Armenian Songs. The sombre melodies that the composer had collected from his field trips to Armenian heartlands are very suitable for the viola, mimicking a female voice. Although monophonic in style, and tipping around the same or similar scales, this serene ending was a fitting tribute to both Kashkashian’s and Mansurian’s hero. 

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