The Tekfen Philharmonic Orchestra is a regular fixture at the Istanbul International Music Festival, drawing their players from across Europe but more specifically from around the Black Sea. They may only come together several times a year, but mustered a gritty and engaging programme of Russian music.

Daniel Müller-Schott and the Tekfen Philharmonic Orchestra
© Ali Guler

Mussorgsky’s Night on Bare Mountain was presented in its usual Rimsky-Korsakov orchestration, and conductor Aziz Shokhakimov launched into with speed and gusto. It was brisk indeed, Shokhakimov barely pulling back where other conductors slow down considerably, the whole thing powered forward by metronomic rhythmic patterns in the strings. Tekfen’s brass were superbly coordinated, brash and incantatory. It was a hugely energetic opening, full of wailing and abrupt silences, sounding like the overture to some great unwritten Faustian opera; this gave way to a spacious and airy coda with the delicate melodies and diaphanous space of Mendelssohn.

Daniel Müller-Schott recently recorded Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto with Shokhakimov, a partnership that cemented a memorable performance of this challenging masterpiece, written for the composer’s legendary collaborator Mstislav Rostropovich. It is music whose desperate lyricism rarely abates across its half-hour span, growing wilder and more paranoid as the walls start to close in on the soloist, the composer’s famous D-S-C-H motto growing terrifyingly insistent. Müller-Schott is a brilliant narrator, flighty and stylish in the inquisitorial first movement, with Shokhakimov’s woodwinds and horns hounding him mercilessly.

The second movement saw Müller-Schott sing its beautiful song without words amongst the musty warmth of the cellos and violas, providing a short moment of repose. Shokhakimov steered the orchestra through the movement's emotional climaxes with characteristic drive and effusiveness. Müller-Schott’s feathery harmonics, cello paired with celesta, took us into the work’s strange outer reaches, an eerily somnambulant passage that managed to be both tenderly nostalgic as well as disturbingly trance-like.

The cadenza that segues directly and constitutes the third movement was Lear-like in its intensity, breathtakingly humane and ruggedly expressive, a spellbinding soliloquy performed as if it were a Bach cello suite. The final movement was a dance of death, the atmosphere intensifying and Müller-Schott’s playing growing increasingly grungy and wild as the music of the first movement returned. One of his encores was Pablo Casals' Song of the Birds, as if to remind us that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Aziz Shokhakimov conducts the Tekfen Philharmonic Orchestra
© Ali Guler

I always cry in Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony; it’s a work that should leave you feeling as if you’ve had a layer skin flayed off. Shokhakimov’s reading was as forward moving as the Mussorgsky that opened the concert, demonstrative and direct rather than vulnerable and secretive. This does work, even if I really feel the opening could have been considerably quieter, both in the sinuous bassoon solo and the viola opening of the Allegro itself. Some sloppy semiquavers and a businesslike second subject meant that we struggled to settle for a while, but the development section was utterly thrilling, with a desperate and urgent climax, less magisterial despair and more unqualified howl of pain.

The second movement’s limping waltz was fulsome, rather than achingly nostalgic. Tekfen’s cellos must have been watching Müller-Schott closely in the first half, their playing richly expressive and emotionally raw. There was again an urgency that was highly engaging and emotionally direct, with even the faltering second theme of this movement explicitly uneasy. Some of the work’s more ambiguous moods were slightly lost in this performance, but hardly fatally so. The third movement was unsurprisingly rambunctious, but wanted for greater rhythmic coordination and more dynamic variety, simply to underscore the barely controlled panic of this music, whose mania frantically tries to conceal some awful vacuum. When Tekfen did find their groove, though, they were thrilling, particularly in the final minutes of the movement, with taut and urgent conducting from Shokhakimov and punchy articulation from brass and strings.

The finale, with its terrible valediction, seemed a little too quick at first, but the effect, each time the great falling B minor theme would return, was like ripping off a plaster to reveal an open wound. Again, this performance gave us defiant music, whose melodies lash out, raging against the dying of the light. We finally got the kind of dynamic range and colour we needed in the tender D major interludes, giving the right emotional shape and weight to Tchaikovsky’s ascending melodic cells. But there was to be no respite: the funereal trombones took us into the coda, where muted lower strings were almost feral, snarling, before bearing us away into darkness and silence, the final, ghastly death-blow coming from the double basses.

Benjamin's press trip was sponsored by the Istanbul Music Festival.