In principle, the concept of playing music with appropriate paintings or art work in the background is not so egregious. The Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon frequently stages performances among its precious objets d’art and a recent recital at the National Gallery of Ireland by Italian theorbo and Baroque guitar virtuoso Simone Vallerotonda in front of four canvasses by Caravaggio was artistically apposite as well as expertly played. In the case of Mikhail Rudy’s “The Sound of Colours: Kandinsky and Chagall” concert at the Istanbul Music Festival, the marriage of art and music was far less felicitous.

Mikhail Rudy © Benek Ozmez
Mikhail Rudy
© Benek Ozmez

The most obvious problem was that the projection screen completely dominated the stage. Secondly, the images displayed were not a succession of stills of paintings by the two abstract/symbolist masters, but a series of animations. The piano was positioned on the extreme left of the stage as if providing background music to a silent movie in the way Wurlitzer organs used to enliven Charlie Chaplin classics in the early 1920s. The audience’s entire focus was on the projections which was probably not such a bad thing as the musical component of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition was, at best, variable.

From the opening single note “Promenade” theme played without the poco sostenuto as marked, it was evident that Rudy was far from at his best. The harsh hammering of the keys made it hard to believe that this was a pianist with an impressive pedigree. In taking chordal form, the majestic Mussorgsky melody was little more than a laboured, tintinnabulous distraction. The important theme’s reworking during the course of the subsequent sections didn’t improve with repetition.  

Kandinsky’s stick images were initially slow to move, but once that happened the visual component completely took control of the concert. There were frequent glitches between the music and the speed of the projections, which resulted in Rudy having to stop between some sections until the relevant frames caught up. 

The Old Castle lacked the requisite dolore and Rudy seemed to be in a rush to get on to the more fun Tuileries where some colorful kaleidoscope images provided a welcome relief to Kandinsky’s spindly, minimalist caricatures. Piano/projection fusion in The Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells was more successful, with three cursor-like shapes scampering over the screen like manic karaoke indicators. The rapid semiquavers in The Market Place in Limoges were far from precise and Baba-Yaga was an example of how not to play fortissimo left hand octaves. The visuals of the squabbling rich and poor Jews, Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle, lacked menace. The climatic Great Gate of Kiev was neither maestoso nor con grandezza and the right hand octave scales and crashing minim chords came perilously close to becoming totally unstuck. Only the flashy glissandi could be called secure.

Mikhail Rudy © Benek Ozmez
Mikhail Rudy
© Benek Ozmez

Having almost emasculated Mussorgsky’s majestic music, the second half of the programme drew on Gluck, Mozart, Wagner, Debussy and Ravel to enliven Marc Chagall’s sumptuous sketches for the ceiling of the Opéra de Paris. Apparently Rudy became good friends with the celebrated symbolist/surrealist late in Chagall’s life and had access to many unpublished préparatif drawings. Interestingly, the sketches used were far less vibrant and prismatic in colour then the final version for the Palais Garnier, which Chagall completed in 1964 without accepting a fee.

Chagall’s enormous pentagon-panelled canvas features the operatic pantheon from Mozart to Stravinsky. Five of the illustrious composers featured in Rudy’s musical representation. A relatively simple piano transcription of Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice accompanied a slow moving, green-hued cherubic lyre-playing heroine. Although harshly played, this music was far less disconcerting than the aberrations of tempi in the Mozart Fantasie in D minor. This was a curious choice, as Chagall’s homage to Mozart represents a flute-playing cockerel in Die Zauberflöte. Considering there are piano transcriptions of Mozart’s Singspiel by at least Hummel and Busoni, the Fantasy wasn't exactly fitting. Liszt’s adaptation of the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde heralded an enormous vermilion circle looking like an ensanguined Rorschach test before moving to the more familiar besotted couple canoodling beside the Arc de Triomph. Rudy’s Wagner playing lacked tension or profound angst, just some poorly articulated chords and muddled pedalling. 

The Debussy études which partnered images of Pelléas et Mélisande were undistinguished and André Malraux’s image as the iconoclast paramour discreetly indistinct. Ravel’s heady La Valse for the Daphnis et Chloé conclusion was rhythmically laboured. This part of the vernissage included Chagall's baffled blue sheep, seemingly symbolic of the outré nature of the entire programme.