Friday 9 April 2021

A journey to Anatolia through the ears of The Turkish Five, pioneers of western classical music in Turkey

To Anatolia - Cemal Reşit Rey, Ferid Alnar, Ulvi Cemal Erkin, Adnan Saygun, Necil Kazım Akses; Beyza Yazgan; Bridge Records

To Anatolia
- Cemal Reşit Rey, Ferid Alnar, Ulvi Cemal Erkin, Adnan Saygun, Necil Kazım Akses; Beyza Yazgan; Bridge Records

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 9 April 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Music from The Turkish Five, composers who combined Western European training with Turkish traditional music in this fascinating piano evocation of the Anatolian peninsula

This album on Bridge Records from Turkish pianist Beyza Yazgan, currently resident in the USA, is entitled To Anatolia: Selections from The Turkish Five and consists of a collection of 26 short piano movements by five Turkish composers, Cemal Reşit Rey (1904-1985), Ferid Alnar (1906-1978), Ulvi Cemal Erkin (1906-1972), Adnan Saygun (1907-1991), and Necil Kazım Akses (1908-1999).

These five composers arose out of the initiative of Kemal Atatürk (the first President of the Republic of Turkey established in 1923) as part of his wider movement to bring contemporary Western European arts to Turkey (composer Paul Hindemith was involved with starting the Istanbul Conservatoire and other projects in the 1930s). Atatürk 's intention was to embrace contemporary European methods and combine them with Turkish traditional music (which under the Ottomans had been largely monophonic or heterophonic). All five of the composers studied abroad, Saygun and Erkin in Paris, Rey in Paris and Geneva, and Alnar and Akses in Vienna. And all returned to Turkey, blending Western compositional techniques with the modes, rhythms and melodies of Turkey.

Yazgan's selection is intended to be an evocation of this music and the music of Turkey, so the disc moves from one composer to another. All the five wrote larger scale works, but Yazgan's programme is intended as a journey to Anatolia to bring out the melodies and rhythms of the peninsula as recreated by these five composers. The music is certainly not in the cheerfully folkloric vein that one might expect, and the pieces demonstrate a fascinating engagement between the composers and their source material. In many ways, the music here resembles that of Bartok and Kodaly in that Turkish melodies, rhythms and harmonies give rise to a complex synthesis.

These are all miniatures, no track lasts longer than 3'30, but there are two larger scale works. Erkin's intriguingly named Five Drops (from 1931, premiered by the composer) is a suite of five contrasting character pieces where we definitely feel the influence of 1920s European musical styles and again, despite his training in Paris (including with Nadia Boulanger) I kept coming back to the way Bartok and Kodaly utilised the distinctive style of Hungarian folk-music in their pieces. The other larger-scale work is Saygun's Sonatina (from 1938). Saygun also studied in Paris, but this Sonatina is an altogether darker and denser work than we might have expected, the influence of traditional music here has been well synthesised into something different. 

All the composers wrote larger scale works, Rey wrote eight operas and ten operettas, Saygun would reach international acclaim in 1946 with his oratorio, Yunus Emre, and write five operas and four symphonies, Alnar wrote concertos for the cello and for the kanun (a type of large zither), Erkin wrote two symphonies and a number of concertos, whilst Akses wrote four operas and six symphonies. Music by them is not unknown on disc and their centenaries were celebrated, but still the names are barely known in Western Europe.

The CD booklet provides a charming introduction from Yazgan herself, along with an explanation of some of the Turkish traditional music behind the works on the disc. I would, however, have liked a little more concrete information, some background to the composers and their works, particularly dates.

The intention behind this disc was to take us on a journey to Anatolia, to evoke the sights and sounds of the peninsuala as heard through the ears of these five 20th century Turkish composers. Yazgan does that admirably, conjuring many different colours and timbres with her playing, but she also encourages us to explore the music of these five composers. Having heard the disc, I want to explore more. 

To Anatolia - Cemal Reşit Rey, Ferid Alnar, Ulvi Cemal Erkin, Adnan Saygun, Necil Kazım Akses; Beyza Yazgan; Bridge Records

To Anatolia
- piano music by  Cemal Reşit Rey (1904-1985), Ferid Alnar (1906-1978), Ulvi Cemal Erkin (1906-1972), Adnan Saygun (1907-1991), and Necil Kazım Akses (1908-1999)
Beyza Yazgan (piano)
Recorded in February 2020 at Skillman Music, Brooklyn
BRIDGE RECORDS 9549 1CD [53:05]

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