Beethoven by the Bosphorus

A
a
-

Nick Shave reports from the Istanbul festival

A
a
-

You know the Turkish audience is behind him when they give Fazil Say a standing ovation before he has even begun to play the piano. But at the Istanbul Festival last week, the applause was less in eager anticipation of his music-making, perhaps, than in support of his freedom to speak. Say, an atheist, has been charged by the Turkish government with publicly insulting religious values after he posted a string of satirical messages – he joked about the call to prayer, for example, asking whether the muezzin had delivered it quickly in order to get away for a drink – on the social network site, Twitter. He stands trial on 18 October, and, if convicted, could spend up to 18 months in prison.

I think he should be held accountable – not for his liberal outlook that brought a packed audience to its feet at the Haliç congress centre, but for the way in which he then massacred Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in the performance that followed. All his usual idiosyncratic gestures were on show – the humming and sweeping hand gestures at the keyboard – along with some stylistic eccentricities I had not heard from him before: inner voices yanked suddenly into the foreground; crescendos and diminuendos that surged unpredictably against the natural flow of the melodic line; and a first-movement cadenza that seemed to belong to another work entirely. It was heartfelt, passionate playing, true to the way in which Say felt at any given moment – but less about Beethoven, more about Say.

After the interval, the pianist-composer shared his vision of Mesopotamia, in the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra’s premiere of his programmatic Second Symphony. Written for full orchestra, bass flute, bass recorder, and the weird whine of theremin, its 10 movements formed a patchwork of evocations – its Rite-like episodes and heroic Gladiator-esque themes winning a second standing ovation. It seemed Say could do no wrong.

This year’s festival, celebrating its 40th anniversary, embraced the past as much as the new. Lucas Vis’s multi-media piece, Say I am You-Mevlana, written for eight voices and small ensemble, told of the spiritual journey taken by traveler Sems as he befriends the 13th-century Persian Sufi sage and poet, Mevlana. The music – featuring ney flute and kanun (a kind of Turkish zither) – was accompanied by Tessa Joosse’s abstract, poetic images, reminiscent at times of Andrei Tarkovsky’s equally abstract, Stalker – something to do with the timelessness, and mystical sense of place. And there were some terrific solo performances, too: Hélène Grimaud gave a stunning account of Liszt’s B minor Sonata, and the charismatic young guitarist, Miloš, played a wonderfully intimate recital – Albéniz, Bach, Villa-Lobos, Domeniconi – at Istanbul University, while a stray cat, which had found its way into the University building, slinked its way up and down the stairs behind him.

There is undoubtedly something incredibly special about the Istanbul music festival. Much of it comes down to the life and soul of the city – so full of colour, from the bright reds, pinks and yellows of the spices in its market stalls, to the Manhattan-yellow taxis that bully their way between lanes of chaotic traffic. And surging silently through, is the beautiful, deep blue Bosphorus river, its water sparkling like stars beneath ancient mosques that point from its river banks, lush-green with trees, to the skies above. This Western-looking festival in the heat of an Eastern European, Islamic country is now entirely dependent upon private sponsorship for its survival – so it’s good to hear it take risks. And whatever Fazil Say says about the call to prayer, as a visitor, it’s hard not to be moved by its directness, and struck by the way it weaves its way into every concert.