Saturday 6 January 2024

At Kings Place this month, Turkish pianist Can Çakmur celebrates the Hamamatsu Competition which he won in 2018, not to mention embarking on his 12-disc Schubert with BIS

Can Çakmur (Photo: HIPIC)
Can Çakmur (Photo: HIPIC)

He won the Hamamatsu Competition in 2018 and has embarked on a 12-disc Schubert+ set with BIS, as part of an exclusive recording contract, surveying of Schubert’s complete major works for piano alongside music by other composers. He cites regular listening to the Bilkent Symphony Orchestra (BSO) in Ankara as part of his parents' subscription as an early influence, retains an interest in Hungarian piano pedagogy but also cites Robert Fripp as one of his heroes. Yet my chat to Turkish pianist Can Çakmur also touched on the complex, political yet fascinating history of music in Turkey, as well as talking about the discipline of running.

In advance of the 2024 Hamamatsu Competition (which runs from 8 to 25 November), Can Çakmur will be joined by Noriko Ogawa (the Competition's Chair of the Jury) for a showcase concert at Kings Place on 19 January 2024.

The Hamamatsu International Piano Competition was inaugurated in 1991 to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the founding of Hamamatsu City in Japan and competitions are held every three years and are open to pianists up to the age of 30. Past winners have included Alessio Bax (1997). Can Çakmur won the 2018 competition and the 2021 competition was not held, because of COVID.

Can Çakmur
Can Çakmur

The showcase concert at Kings Place, to an extent, finishes the post-competition concert tour that Can was undertaking when COVID hit. He finished around 30 concerts in Japan, but the European leg of the tour had to be cancelled. The idea behind the Kings Place concert was to join forces with Noriko Ogawa, the chair of the jury, to show what the competition was about. So, Can and Noriko Ogawa to perform Beethoven's piano-four-hands arrangement of the Grosse Fugue, and Can will be joined by Benjamin Gilmore violin, Rosalind Ventris viola, Tim Posner cello to perform Mozart's Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor which has been part of the competition for a few years as the third stage involves the contestants playing chamber music

Can will be playing Schubert's Piano Sonata in B flat major D 960, a work he has not only recorded but which he played in the competition. The final work in the programme is a new one, the New Life Sonata by Turkish composer Fazil Say. Can had wanted to play something contemporary in the programme, Fazil Say is a friend and Can had been looking for an occasion to perform the sonata, so this was ideal. He describes it as an attractive piece, it won't put people off, and its theme, new life is apt for the launch.

Can is very positive about the outcome of the competition for him. After winning in 2018, he felt that he did not have to do another competition and that the competition had considered very carefully what to do with the winner. He was not plunged straight into the tour, there was two months' notice during which he recorded the disc which came out in time for the tour, and the biggest concerts were in the middle of the tour. Also, many of the concerts in Japan were in main subscription series, which meant the possibility of being asked back if he was liked.

The recording was, essentially, the biggest prize and after making the disc with BIS, the company asked him to do more discs, with a plan for 12 CDs and then five more and now an exclusive recording contract. Also, the UK leg of the tour was being handled by Ikon and this led to a chance to sign on with the company, a nice corollary.

But as important for Can was that he met lots of wonderful people, who have become friends and he continues to return to Japan each year for some project or other. This year he will be playing two-piano repertoire with Noriko Ogawa in Hamamatsu.

Following his prize-winners disc with BIS (which includes music by Schubert, Haydn, Bartok, Fazil Say, Fuyuhiko Sasaki and Beethoven, transcribed Liszt), Can followed this up with a recording of Liszt's transcription of Schubert's Schwanengesang, and then Without Borders with music by Bartok, Mitropoulos, Saygun and Enescu, and he has now embarked on his Schubert+ series, the second volume of which will be released in February 2024 and contains Schubert's Three Piano Pieces D.946 and Four Impromptus D.935 juxtaposed with Brahms' Four Piano Pieces Op.119. The first volume, which paired Schubert's early A minor sonata D537 and A major sonata D959 with Schoenberg's Three Pieces, Op. 11, was the Editor's Choice in the August 2023 edition of Gramophone magazine.

The Schubert+ series has now expanded to 12 discs (following the decision to re-record the Schubert sonata that he included on his prize-winners disc), each disc pairing Schubert with other works that make sense from either a compositional point of view or an historical one. This will also be a way to give context to Schubert's youthful pieces and his unfinished ones, so that Krenek's completion of one of Schubert's unfinished sonatas will be paired with Krenek's own compositions to make what Can feels is a thought-provoking programme. There will be a programme of impromptus, with music from before Schubert, through Schubert to Chopin right through to the 20th century, each composer Can feels indebted in some way to the past and thus creating a line which follows through, in a programme that he describes as more fun to listen to than all Schubert. Also, he wryly points out that including other composers will 'keep him entertained' so he is not spending five years entirely devoted to Schubert.

Without Borders - Can Çakmur - BIS records
His previous disc, Without Borders, came out during the pandemic and is his favourite disc. It juxtaposes music by Bartok (Hungarian), Dimitri Mitropoulos (Greek), Ahmet Adnan Saygun (Turkish), and Georges Enescu (Romanian), bringing together music from four Balkan nations. Can describes the Balkans as a nationalistically problematic region, with nationalism involving a lot of useless hatred. But in terms of music, the Balkan nations share so much, in terms of cultural heritage dialogue is possible, and the nations share some geography and destiny. He feels that the music on the disc binds together well and apart from Bartok's Piano Sonata which is such a good piece anyway, the other works have hardly been recorded. And it is this idea of music binding together that gave rise to the olive branch on the disc's cover.

When it comes to preferred composers he says that he really likes Liszt, but has not really heard any Western classical music that he dislikes. He tends to shy away from Bach, mainly because he has not yet found a way to make the music work on the piano. He also loves contemporary music, but he always comes back to Schubert who must be his favourite composer.

When I rather naively ask about Turkish classical music we end up in a lively discussion about the various types of Turkish music, its complicated and somewhat political history. Essentially, in the 19th century, there was folk music (which was certainly not insular) and court music, which had a greater Arabic influence, whilst both styles were monodic with no harmony. There was, of course, an extended interchange between them, but the instrumentation and sound were different, and court music was intellectually more complex. 

Western classical music was present in Turkey from the 19th century and influenced court music (composer Gaetano Donizetti's elder brother Giuseppe was Instructor General of the Imperial Ottoman Music at the court of Sultan Mahmud II and lived in Istanbul until his death). From the Republic, the focus of government policy was creating Turkish-style Western classical music based on folk music. As part of this policy, polyphony was seen as being better because it was Western, so Turkish composers in the 20th century were expected to take monodic folk music and create polyphony from it. Also, there were attempts to cleanse Turkish music of Arabic (Islamic) influences. 

Only much later did Turkish composers start writing in the serialist style of composers like Boulez, and now, Western classical music in Turkey is a mixture of everything. A lot of Turkish composers in the early 20th century studied in Paris, so there is also a French influence in 20th-century music, much of which is fascinating and really good.

Western classical music during the Republic was a way of steering the country towards a Westernised viewpoint and Can says that it is debatable whether this movement carried the people with it. Yet this influence continues to the present day, and most Western classical musicians in Turkey have little idea of folk music or court music.

He points out that when Bartok was collecting folk music, Bartok wanted the source to be undefiled. This is very difficult in Turkey where folk music might be 'improved' to make it better (in the eyes of the improver) or decorated in a neo-Arabic style. It is thus difficult to find versions of pieces that are authentic.

Can's background is firmly Western classical, and the same was true of most of his colleagues when he was studying in Turkey, but there was always Turkish music in the background, on the radio. He began studying the piano at the age of five, describing himself as a good student but not a prodigy. At the age of 13, he attended a masterclass in Belgium and realised that he had a chance to perform as a pianist if he worked. Through the Pekinel sisters (Güher and Süher Pekinel who perform mainly as a piano duo) he won a scholarship at the age of 14, but it meant that he had to commit to going on to study music at university. The decision to do so was his, not his parents. 

His parents are not musicians, but he describes them as good listeners. They had a subscription to the Bilkent Symphony Orchestra (BSO) in Ankara, an orchestra founded just before he was born and from the age of three he was taken along. Ankara did not normally attract what Can calls A-list soloists, but the BSO did so, and thus he was exposed to some fine music-making. And he loved looking at the soloists, and thanks to that BSO subscription he heard a lot of music between the ages of three and fifteen.

When I ask what is ahead he says keep teaching and keep learning. He has been teaching at Trinity Laban for two years and enjoys it. Teaching is something of a passion and he wants to do more and give more masterclasses. At the moment he is trying to establish a living for himself, to find a concert circuit that does not burn him out but which is sustainable. He is also trying to learn as much repertoire as possible and tries not to say no to new projects. He wants to keep himself at ease with new repertoire rather than sticking to the same pieces.

He would also like to work on his languages and it would be lovely to devote more time to sports. He is passionate about this latter and tries to run regularly. When not touring he can average 100km a week but when he starts travelling this becomes difficult. Though it is difficult to balance sport and his working life, without sport he would lose his mind, and the discipline of running is, he feels, a good thing. On tour, it is easy to get addicted to something whether it be alcohol or social media. So performing 60 or so concerts per year, that becomes a lot of alcohol or a lot of social media. If he can replace that with running, then he gets tired and thus sleeps, and he has adventures too, and he sees places.

Can Çakmur (Photo: HIPIC)
Can Çakmur (Photo: HIPIC)

When I ask about heroes, the first name he mentions is baritone Dietrich Fischer Dieskau and the second is Robert Fripp, best known as the guitarist, founder and longest-lasting member of the progressive rock band King Crimson. Can describes Fripp as incredible, his music is marvellous. Another hero is Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache, and two Hungarian pedagogues, Ferenc Rados, and György Sebők

Can feels that he has learned as much from Robert Fripp's music as from any classical music; Fripp's care for instrumental ability is close to what classical musicians do. Classical musicians have to be technically proficient, and sometimes it is easy to forget why. Also, Fripp's use of irregular rhythms links him to a lot of Balkan and Hungarian music. 

When I ask about his interest in Hungarian pedagogues he explains that his teacher until he went to University was one of the Hungarian pianist Anni Fischer's few pupils and he came to appreciate the Hungarian way of doing things. Since then he has watched a lot of Rados' videos. Can likes the idea of making music as if you were speaking, something that he associates with Hungary. One of Rados' pupils was a professor of singing in Weimar when Can was studying there, and the professor treated music like speech, as a language complete in itself.

Can Çakmur & friends is on 19 January 2024 at Kings Place [further details], for Can's full performance schedule, see his website.

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