This concert, the first of two by the Russian Chamber Philharmonic St Petersburg at the Istanbul Festival, celebrated the legacy of Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who commissioned many works for piano left-hand after losing his right arm in the First World War: hence the title “My Left Hand”. In fact, the programme starred two left hands, with concertos by Ravel and Prokofiev performed by Hüseyin Sermet and Vassilis Varvaresos respectively. The two composers took very different approaches to their commissions, and so the results here were satisfyingly varied: the Ravel richly textured, the Prokofiev lighter and more agile, all impressively conveyed by the two pianists.

Huseyin Sermet © Istanbul Music Festival
Huseyin Sermet
© Istanbul Music Festival

Hüseyin Sermet is a native of Istanbul, and therefore presumably has much experience of the rich acoustic at the Hagia Eirene, the ancient church behind the Hagia Sophia that serves as the main concert venue for the festival. It is a spacious sound and it requires careful negotiation, but Sermet’s detached phrasing and reserved pedal proved ideal. The acoustic also made the opening beautifully atmospheric, the music appearing out of nothing from quiet, low textures in the double basses and contrabassoon – the effect seeming to come from all round the audience. Sermet rarely went to dynamic extremes (another negotiation with the acoustic perhaps), but brought a wide range of colours to the solo part, inspiring a similar palette from the orchestra. An impressive performance all round, from a pianist we should hear more of in the West.

Vassilis Varvaresos is also a name to watch. His approach is lighter and his touch more delicate, ideal qualities for the Prokofiev Fourth Concerto. Where Ravel employs the left hand to do the work of two – with broad broken chords, intricate counterpoint and complex textures – Prokofiev opts for single lines, darting around the keyboard in rhythmically sophisticated patterns. Varvaresos was suitably agile here, by turns sardonic and playful, but never attempting to draw more emotion than Prokofiev seems to intend. The concerto is more showpiece than deeply-felt expression – even in its lyrical moderato third movement everything is at the surface – and that is exactly how Varvaresos presented it. Hearing the two concertos back to back, it is easy to hear why the Ravel is by far the more popular of the two, but Varvaresos made an excellent case for the more rarefied charms of Prokofiev’s score.

The Russian Chamber Philharmonic St Petersburg, more philharmonic than chamber in size this evening, framed the concert with two Russian classics, Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite and Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances. Pulcinella felt bloated here, with the large orchestra applying lush, Romantic textures rather than the chaste Italian Baroque of the music’s sources. That sat uneasily with the generous acoustic, and while the sound was imposing, too many details were lost. The Borodin was similarly opulent, but fared much better. Conductor Juri Gilbo demonstrated an ideal feel for the rubato required to make this music properly dance, and Borodin’s sumptuous orchestral textures proved ideal to the acoustic, the large and enthusiastic percussion section ensuring rhythmic focus throughout. Particularly impressive was the patient build-up to the final chord in the vivace finale. Gilbo sensibly opted for a moderate tempo, but compensated with huge dynamic contrasts, building to a towering climax. The ever-enthusiastic Istanbul audience went wild, and many encores followed.