Tuesday 5 May 2015

Scheherezade from Istanbul

Scheherazade - Borusan Istanbul Philarmonic Orchestra
Rimsky-Korsakov Scheherazade, Balakirev, Ippolitov-Ivanov, Erkin; Sascha Goetzel, Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic; Onyx
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on April 25 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Imaginative and vivid account from the Istanbul-based orchestra

When I consider Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, I generally think of pedagogical performances with groups of young players, perhaps a major symphony orchestra keen to how off their prowess, the ballet created for Nijinsky by Fokine, Bakst and Diaghilev, or even my own performance in back of the violas at University. Because of the superb quality and imagination of Rimsky-Korsakov's scoring, we are in danger of forgetting that Rimsky-Korsakov's work is actually a really imaginative dramatic piece.

This disc on Onyx Classics from Sascha Goetzel and the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra seeks to restore the particularity of the score, performed with two more Russian exotics Balakirev's Islamey and two of Ippolitov Ivanov's Caucasian Sketches. The orchestra, under their Austrian conductor Sascha Goetzel, also include a major piece of music by a Western-trained Turkish composer, Ulvi Cemal Erkin's Kocekce: Dance Rhapsody for Orchestra.

The size of the 19th century Russian empire meant that composers could find oriental exoticism almost on their borders; two of the works on this disc arose after visits by Balakirev and Ippolitov-Ivanov to the Russian Caucasus region. Rimsky-Korsakov mined more various strands of exoticism in his own work, including Russian fairy tales. In Scheherazade, premiered in 1888, he took traditional Arabit tales and thanks to his combination of skill, imagination and melodic felicity, the work has fascinated audiences ever since.

On this disc it forms a centre piece in a programme in which Sascha Goetzel and the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra seek to capitalise on the orchestra's unique geographical position in Istanbul between Europe and Asia (see my articles on Sascha Goetzel and the orchestra). In Istanbul they play everything from Handel to Mahler and beyond, but on this disc they seek to explore Europe's Eastern routes.

For Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade the orchestra has introduced native instruments into the mix, so that the violin solo is accompanied by a qanum instead of a harp, and between the first and second movements, an oud plays a traditional melody, and the percussion department includes various traditional Turkish and Arabic instruments. All this would be mere window dressing if Sascha Goetzel had not inspired such a fine performance from his players.

The strings do not have the lustrous sheen of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, but this is not to do them down; instead they play with vividness, vibrancy and a sensitivity to colour. Colour is important to Rimsky-Korsakov's score and here the whole orchestra makes a strong and vivid contribution. Sascha Goetzel's speeds refllect his character. He is concerned with conveying the narrative via music and colour, not with wallowing and luxuriating in glorious textures.

Balakirev wrote his fiendishly difficult piano piece Islamey after a trip to the Caucasus with Ippolitov-Ivanov and he utilised local melodies to create a wonderful fantasy. Something of the work's edge is lost when we move from the piano to a whole orchestra, though the orchestration by composer Sergei Lyapunov (a member of Balakirev's circle) is very fine with the orchestra really doing it justice, bringing it to life.

Rimsky-Korsakov's pupil Ippolitov-Ivanov had his first important music direction and conducting role in Tblisi in Georgia, and his acquaintanceship with Georgian folk music led to his Caucasian Sketches. Sascha Goetzel and the orchestra play two movements from the first suite, In a village and Procession of the Sirdar. In the first, the solo cor anglais has been replaced by  traditional instrument. Ippolitov-Ivanov was using the cor anglais to evoke the Zurna, but unable to fine one in a tuning suitable to play with a western orchestra they used a ney. In the second, Procession of the Sirdar, all manner of percussion is used. This latter brought a real smile to my face, evoking happy memories of my time in Lindsey County Youth Orchestra, though I suspect that the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra plays it rather better than we.

All the items so far have evoked Middle Eastern melody and combined it with Western harmonic structures. The final piece on the disc is by Ulvi Cemal Erkin (1906-1972), one of a group of Turkish composers sponsored by Kemel Attaturk as part of his project to modernise and westernise Turkey whilst not losing her Eastern roots. Erkin's piece, Kocekce: Dance Rhapsody for Orchestra, written in 1943, uses Turkish melodies along with Turkish harmonies and rhythms, in a Western framework. Erkin studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and his writing shows a confidence in his medium. here we have a Turk not evoking the Middle East, but writing Middle Eastern music using Western tools. It has a strength and authenticity lacking in the other works and deserves to be better known.

Sascha Goetzel's period in Istanbul has transformed the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra from a local one to one of international significance, as their appearance at the 2014 Proms and this recording both demonstrate. But more than that, their vibrantly fresh account of Rimsky-Korsakov's perennial favourite is set to become one of my own favourites.

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