Here is a brief overview of the Istanbul Recitals for the 2018–19 season, all of which will be taking place at ‘The Seed’ – the Sakıp Sabancı Museum in Emirgan. It has been said that the Istanbul Recitals are one of the chief sources of yüz akı (‘whiteness of face’, ie something that ‘whitens’ one’s reputation, freeing one from any hint of reproach) for the Istanbul classical music scene, and I would fully agree with that statement. Standards of performance are going up in Turkey, I am delighted – and relieved – to say, and congratulations to everyone who has fought for better quality over the years.
The Istanbul Recitals were instituted in 2007 with the late Kamil Şükun as Artistic Director and Nazan Ceylan as General Co-ordinator; following Mr Şükun’s untimely death in 2015 they are now organised jointly by Ms Ceylan and Mr Şükun’s son Mehmet. During the 2018–2019 season, there will be nine concerts given by ten pianists. “How do you work that out?” you may ask. And no, the answer is not that each concert will be given by 1.111 recurring pianists: it is that one of the concerts (the first, in fact) will be given by a duo.
I do not wish to demean any of the fine performers who will – hopefully – be coming to Istanbul to give recitals, but if pressed I will have to admit that certain names stand out. One of these must inevitably be Stephen Kovacevich, formerly known as Stephen Bishop, a Beethoven specialist who has been on the scene since the 1960s. Another, in my most humble opinion, is Ms Yeol Eum Son from South Korea. Far be it from me to offend the other pianists, of course; I will give credit where credit is due when I have heard them play.
As the programmes for most of these recitals are as yet unannounced, all I can offer for the moment is a few observations on the performers themselves. Here is a link to the Istanbul Recitals official website:
Lucas and Arthur Jussen, October 3, 2018
First off the starting block (on October 3) will be Lucas and Arthur Jussen, two brothers from Holland. Lucas, born in 1993, is the elder by three years. They received their first piano lessons in their native town of Hilversum, but both must have made sufficient headway on the instrument to be accepted as pupils (in 2005) by Portuguese virtuoso Maria João Pires, who coached them in Portugal and Brazil for nearly a year.
If the following video of her leading a master class is anything to go by, Ms Pires must have been an extremely exacting mentor. Here, she is teaching a young man how to play the theme and first variation of Beethoven’s 32 Variations. At 02:51, she asks him: “Why is it staccato? Who says so?” Her pupil, very diplomatically, does not reply: “Beethoven, because that’s what he wrote.” And the difficult questions do not stop there:
Here is a video of the Jussen brothers playing Schubert’s Fantasie in F minor in Seoul in 2014. Note that they do not always play separate instruments: sometimes they both play the same piano, sitting side by side. Is it naughty of me to wonder if their heads ever collide during appassionata passages?
And now a film of Lucas and Arthur playing Mozart under the direction of Sir Neville Marriner. Each of them is playing a separate piano, as the composer required:
I see that Poulenc is on the programme for their concert in Istanbul. This probably means the Concerto in D minor, written for two pianos; however, I do not know whether there will be two pianos on the stage in Emirgan, or only one (perhaps someone has cunningly contrived an arrangement for one instrument). Here, the brothers are playing the first movement of the Poulenc concerto with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra:
The other items on the Jussen brothers’ programme are by Beethoven, Schubert, Stravinsky and Fazıl Say, who has written a short piece (‘Night’) especially for them. I think ‘hands-on’ would be an appropriate way of describing the interaction between the performers and the instrument in this case: they do not actually get inside the piano, but this is the next best thing. The creative camerawork in the following video of the piece certainly adds to the drama:
The second in the series of Istanbul Recitals is to be given by the French pianist Alexandre Tharaud. On the programme for November 13 are Couperin, Rameau, Webern and Beethoven. I look forward to hearing some rarely-played French music, and to seeing how the progression from 18th-century Rameau to 20th-century Webern and then back to Beethoven comes over. Monsieur Tharaud is regarded by some as an ace interpreter of Baroque composers: the New York Times has described him as ‘a consummate Scarlatti player’, for instance. Judge for yourself:
In the following video, he is talking about taking time off to learn to play (and eventually record) Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and full marks to him for treating Bach with the seriousness and dedication he deserves:
As for his Chopin ... well, first listen to this performance (at 0:25) of the Nocturne in C sharp minor. The video has the added bonus of some close-ups of the pianist’s hands:
Now see whether you agree with the last sentence of this critique in The Guardian (Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli is one of my all-time favourites, by the way, so the comparison to him is high praise in my estimation):
... Alexandre Tharaud explores a huge emotional range in his ‘Journal Intime’, including the most thrilling and propulsive first ballade since Michelangeli's version, with a deeply intense C sharp minor nocturne at the heart. Tharaud lifts the music across the bar-lines with deft rubato, his sound clear, shining and sensuous; altogether breathtakingly beautiful.
I am of the opinion that Monsieur Tharaud plays Chopin rather nicely. There is more Chopin, as well as Ravel, Scarlatti and Schubert, on this video. Skip to 02:49 if you don’t want the initial tribute to the French chanteuse Barbara:
It seems this pianist is willing to diversify: he isn’t averse to doing gigs with a lighter twist to them, and seems to have branched out into film music, too. Here, he is accompanying the singer Juliette:
Claire Huangci, December 15
Pianist Number Three in the series is Claire Huangci (the c in her surname is apparently pronounced as an ‘s’), who is to perform in Emirgan on December 15. Ms Huangci is a New Yorker who received her initial training at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and is now studying at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Hanover. She took second prize in the ARD Competition in Munich in 2011; two years later she won the Jury’s Discretionary Award at the Van Cliburn Competition (though some thought she should have received one of the main prizes), and more recently – in June 2018 – she took first prize at the Concours Géza Anda in Zurich.
Let us begin with two videos about her, the second of which reveals her as an allergy sufferer (Snap!). Fortunately, she will not be in Istanbul during the early summer allergy season:
Ms Huangci has been described as ‘the most expressive Chopin performer of her generation’. I leave this for you to decide; what is certain, however, is that she has remarkably graceful hand and arm movements, which serves to enhance the aesthetic quality of her performances. Here, she is playing Chopin’s Sonata in B minor:
And now, Chopin’s Andante spianato et grande polonaise brillante:
Ms Huangci’s Schumann isn’t at all bad, either. In this video she is playing the Symphonic Etudes. The variation that most gets me going, Number Seven – dig those gutsy suspensions – starts at 14:38:
Although there is no indication on the Istanbul Recitals website as to which works Claire Huangci will be playing, it is a safe bet that the Romantics will feature somewhere on the programme. During a previous appearance in Emirgan in 2012 (if that is anything to go by) she played Bach, Schumann, Debussy, Scriabin and Tchaikovsky.
Freddy Kempf, January 12, 2019
Next on the menu is Freddy Kempf (who is apparently related to Wilhelm Kempff, by the way, though Freddy is half-German, half-Japanese and was brought up in Britain). His recital, the fourth in the series, is scheduled for January 12, 2019. Here is an interview with him; at 07:39 he recalls a week’s holiday in Istanbul. One wonders how much Turkish he succeeded in learning:
I notice that on his own website, he mentions that he is ‘negotiating a major recital in Istanbul’. I hope the adjective ‘major’ is justified by the reality of his performance; at any rate, it is flattering to know that this artist regards Istanbul as a venue of special import. On the programme will be Kapustin, Rachmaninov and Prokofiev. Nikolai Kapustin, by the way, is a Ukraine-born octogenarian pianist and composer who has produced a number of jazzy concert études and preludes.
In the recording of the Chopin Etudes (Opus 10, not Opus 25) that follows, Freddy Kempf comes out with guns blazing. Can Etude No 1 really be played that fast, or has something happened to human DNA in the last few decades? (Although I have to say, with no disrespect to Mr Kempf, that Daniil Trifonov plays it just as fast.) Freddy is a speed-bomb in Etude No 4 (which starts at 08:31) as well. And in Etude No 10, he demonstrates his ability to withstand Chopin’s merciless, tendon-trouncing treatment of the right hand – this begins at 23:37:
In the next video, he demonstrates his class as a musician by getting just the right degree of rubato (in my view, at least) in his Rachmaninov. Russians tend to be a trifle unbending in the matter of rhythmic regularity; however, conductor Yuri Botnari has allowed Mr Kempf to stretch ‘the rules’ to the limit in this riveting performance of the first movement of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 3 with the Moscow Philharmonic. And if you doubt the veracity of my assertion that Mr Kempf’s playing is ‘riveting’, get a hit of the solo that starts at 11:39:
Finally, here is Freddy playing and conducting Beethoven in New Zealand:
Before we leave the subject of Freddy Kempf, an anecdote on the subject of his relative Wilhelm Kempff is called for. In an article by the journalist Doğan Hızlan in the Hürriyet newspaper, the story is told of a recital by Kempff in Ankara at which Atatürk was present. After the concert (which took place in 1927), Atatürk invited the celebrated pianist to dinner at Çankaya. At eleven o’clock, as the other guests were leaving, Atatürk asked him to stay behind.
Their conversation began with Atatürk explaining how he was bringing about reforms in various areas such as education and the law. Then he said: “But the last piece of Western culture to be put in place, and the one that will complete the picture, is Western music. Therefore, we need to popularise Western classical music in every part of the country. My greatest fear is that if we do not carry out reforms in the sphere of classical music in parallel with our other reforms, the process will remain incomplete.”
Atatürk then asked Kempff to recommend someone who could help him with this task, and the latter put forward the name of Wilhelm Furtwängler, the famous German conductor. The two went on conversing until four in the morning.
Later, the Turkish government invited Furtwängler to come to Turkey, set up a conservatoire and draw up programmes for musical training. Furtwängler declined the offer, pleading pressure of work and prior engagements; instead, he recommended Paul Hindemith for the job – and as a result Hindemith eventually came to Turkey.
The fifth in the series of Istanbul Recitals for 2018-2019 is to be given by the American pianist Andrew Tyson on February 15. Mr Tyson won first prize at the Concours Géza Anda in 2015; he also received the orchestra’s award at the Leeds Competition in 2012.
Here is his performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 1 in the final round of the Géza Anda Competition:
And now, an extract from the finale of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 3 in Leeds with the Hallé Orchestra (which gave him their award) conducted by Sir Mark Elder:
Here is a recording of the full concerto without visuals:
The following video of Andrew Tyson playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 21 in C major has some close-ups of the pianist’s hands and facial expressions – which show (especially at 06:39, 08:53 and 15:54) that he is getting into his Mozart in a big way. His playing certainly has a commendable delicacy and refinement:
This is not to say, of course, that Mr Tyson cannot play in a more vigorous and extroverted style – witness the Chopin and Rachmaninov above, and the Scriabin at the beginning of the next video. The tone colour in the extract from Ravel’s Miroirs which follows the Scriabin at 01:51 is particularly pleasing:
In this trailer for his album of Chopin’s 24 Preludes, Andrew Tyson talks about how he started playing the piano, describes his interest in jazz and improvisation and underlines the importance of spontaneity in music. There is a great deal of fire in the brief bursts of Chopin that punctuate this video: he describes the Preludes as ‘fevered visions, not for the faint of heart’:
Goran Filipec, March 13, 2019
On March 13 2019, the Croatian pianist Goran Filipec will be the sixth performer to grace the stage in Emirgan. Born in Rijeka in 1981, he studied the piano at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow, as well as in The Hague, Cologne and Zagreb. His album Paganini, a recording of Liszt’s Paganini Studies released in 2016, won the Ferenc Liszt Society’s Grand Prix du Disque, so there is a distinct possibility that Liszt will be on the programme. Here, he is playing Liszt’s arrangement of Schubert’s song Der Erlkönig for a French television programme (La boîte à musique). As Mr Filipec is currently based in Paris, it is no surprise that he can hold his own in French. There is more Schubert at 07:30:
The Crown (Croatian World Network) website has a selection of links to performances by Goran Filipec. The first is the one cited above, but there are others. Scroll down for the second video, in which he is performing the first movement of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 3. A word of warning: whoever positioned the microphones must have been really keen to hear the woodwind section (which is rather too prominent in this recording), but nevertheless the piano succeeds in coming through:
The fifth video on the Crown website is an explosive rendition of Chopin’s Polonaise Opus 53 (the Héroique). In the eleventh video (the one that follows the interview entitled Teatro El Circulo de Rosario) Filipec is playing Liszt – Reminiscences de Norma, while in the twelfth and final video he is performing Liszt’s Polonaise No 1, the Mélancolique. Once it gets going, it isn’t mélancolique at all. In fact, it’s a real roller-coaster:
In the following video of a recital in Kawasaki in 2017 (the sound quality isn’t all that great, unfortunately), Goran Filipec begins with a couple of pieces by the Croatian composer Ivo Maček (1914-2002). He then continues with – guess who? Liszt, of course:
Stephen Kovacevich, April 12, 2019
Stephen Kovacevich, who is to give the seventh recital on April 12, is in fact the person who used to be known as Stephen Bishop. Apparently, Mr Bishop – who later started calling himself ‘Stephen Bishop-Kovacevich’, and finally ‘Stephen Kovacevich’ – changed his name to avoid being confused with a singer and songwriter who shared the same nomenclature. ‘Kovacevich’ is the surname of his Croatian father (interesting tie-in with Goran Filipec here).
Born in Los Angeles in 1940, Mr Kovacevich moved to London when he was 18 to study with Dame Myra Hess, who was famous for her wartime chamber music recitals at the National Gallery. I cannot resist sharing with you this recording of her playing her famous transcription of Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, followed by a Scarlatti Sonata:
Here are two interviews with Stephen Kovacevich. The first is short, the second long:
The job of describing his musical career has already been done very effectively by The Guardian in their article in the Listen Up series. The drawback is that most of the links do not seem to work (in Turkey, at least), so I shall give them separately from the article. The write-up is still good, however:
Mr Kovacevich is best known as an interpreter of Beethoven, as well as of Brahms, Mozart and Schubert. Here is his famous rendition of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, recorded in 1968 when he was still ‘Stephen Bishop’. (In fact, he re-recorded the work 40 years later, this time playing it somewhat faster.)
He is also celebrated for his recording of all Beethoven’s piano sonatas. In the next video, he is teaching one Claire Huangci (the name should sound familiar) how to use the pedal in the Waldstein:
And now here he is in the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 4, coaxing a wonderfully limpid tone out of the instrument in the quieter passages – especially in the cadenza, which begins at 06:53 in the second of the two videos into which the movement is unfortunately divided:
Movements 2 and 3 are also separate videos. In the second movement, the mature Mr Kovacevich gives the lie to his own earlier belief that Beethoven is ‘loud’ and ‘crude’: the composer may have had Uranus the Awakener, bringer of flashy electric storms and shocks, in stressful aspect to his Ascendant, but this Scorpio Ascendant (plus Saturn in Leo on the Midheaven) also gave him a darker, more introspective side. The pianist obviously understands this:
It would be unfair to represent Stephen Kovacevich as a Beethoven-only pianist, however. His recording of Schubert’s Sonata in B flat major (D960, one of the composer’s last works) is beautifully serene, especially in the second movement with its occasional dramatic build-ups (this one starts at 19:58). Someone ought to use this movement as a film soundtrack. But what sort of film should it be? You decide:
Before moving on, I would like to bring to your attention some remarks on pianos and concert halls made by Mr Kovacevich in an interview with Gramophone in 2008. I certainly hope arrangements at ‘The Seed’ in Emirgan meet with his approval:
Stephen Kovacevich, an international concert pianist in his late sixties, is seated on the balcony talking to Gramophone’s Jeremy Nicholas. Kovacevich has taken part in a concert the previous evening ... Enter Martha Argerich, also an international concert pianist in her late sixties. She, too, played in the concert ... She and Kovacevich enjoyed a brief marriage in the 1970s (their daughter Stephanie and baby grandson are asleep in an adjoining room). They have so much in common, yet it is difficult to imagine two more dissimilar pianists and people ... It’s baking hot on the balcony, so all three retreat into the cool of the main room to talk.
SK: It can be the acoustic, right?
MA: Oh yes. Very much. And the light!
SK: Oh yes – if it’s too bright it drives me crazy. If the acoustic is generous it is astonishing how much better you play, because you don’t feel as though you are being observed with clinical ears. Some acoustics bring out the best. There’s a hall in Japan that is so perfect it’s actually scary! I’m not criticising it, it’s perfect – but you also feel that the public don’t dare move. You hear everything.
MA: From the public, too!
SK: And the corollary of that is the disappointing halls we’ve played in that have been built in the past 10 or 20 years. There’s an obsession with clarity and not with warmth and a stinky goulash of sound, the kind that makes people free (sic). I played in the Musikverein for the first time two years ago. I expected to be nervous. I was hardly nervous at all. The sound was so marvellous that it actually helped me. At other times it feels like going to the dentist. If I’m asked to play in a hall that I know to have a bad acoustic I turn it down.
MA: So do I.
Below is a link to the full interview (note, by the way, that Kovacevich says in a 2015 interview with the Telegraph that he and Argerich never actually married, but enjoyed a ‘combustible’ relationship):
Yeol Eum Son, May 11, 2019
Recital Number Eight is to be given by Yeol Eum Son on May 11, 2019. Born in South Korea in 1986, she took second prize in the Van Cliburn Competition in 2009 and in the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 2011. Famous for her ‘graceful interpretations, crystalline touch and versatile, thrilling performances’, she is currently based in Hanover, where she once studied with Arie Vardi at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater – although she received her initial training in Korea.
Here is an interview with her in which the interviewer pronounces her name several times in the first few minutes; it sounds different each time, but I will not attempt to describe how! Apparently, ‘Yeol-eum’ means ‘blooming’ or ‘bearing fruit’:
Rather than showcase her technique with a flashier piece, I would prefer to start with a charming performance of Schubert’s Impromptu in B flat major (the Rosamunde) at the Van Cliburn Competition in 2009:
Now for something decidedly pyrotechnical – Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsody:
I really like the way Yeol Eum Son plays Mozart. Here, she is playing his Concerto No 21 in C major (K467) at the Tchaikovsky Competition in 2011:
No doubt her Taurus Sun enables her to feel stable and grounded, and thus less frazzled by constant travel from country to country. In the interview above, she admits to being lazy (in everything apart from her music, of course). Taurus people have the reputation of being content to be just where they are: indeed, it has been said that trying to persuade a Taurus person to go out when they themselves have decided to stay in is rather like trying to move a grand piano. Joking aside, having some fixed-earth Taurean solidity behind her must be an advantage when she is competing with male pianists. There is certainly nothing wishy-washy about her playing in this performance of the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Concerto No 1 at the competition in 2011:
Anna Tsybuleva, June 14, 2019
And so we come to the last in the series of nine Istanbul Recitals. The pianist on June 14 2019 is to be Anna Tsybuleva, who will be playing Chopin and Tchaikovsky. (June is an allergy month; I hope she is not a hay-fever sufferer.) Ms Tsybuleva won the Leeds Competition in 2015, and this was followed by a recital at the Wigmore Hall in London at which she played CPE Bach, Schumann, Medtner and three of Debussy’s Preludes. International Pianist Magazine has described her as ‘a born performer’; as she is a Leo, this is hardly surprising.
Ms Tsybuleva is apparently from Karachay-Cherkessia in the Caucasus, north-west of Georgia. Whether or not she has any Caucasian blood in her veins is something she does not say in this video about her:
She describes her teacher in Moscow, Lyudmila Roshina (herself a pupil of Samuil Feinberg), as ‘bringing the tradition of Russian pianism to her students’, which is really saying something. Here is Anna Tsybuleva playing Debussy’s Feux d’artifice (‘Fireworks’) from the second book of Préludes:
More Debussy – this time Voiles (‘Veils’) from Préludes Book 1. I think she captures the soft, floating quality of the piece very nicely:
And now here she is playing something rather more rumbustious: Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1:
In the following performance of Liszt’s Etude No 2 (La Leggierezza) and Chopin’s Waltz in D flat major, the Minute Waltz (which starts at 06:05), the camera allows you to see how much pleasure she is getting out of playing the Chopin – evidenced by the smiles and the head-nodding:
Finally, some Schumann – the Symphonic Etudes once more. Not surprisingly in view of the fact that Anna Tsybuleva describes herself as someone who tries to find new ways of expressing feelings, it is an emotionally taut performance. My favourite variation (by now you know which one) starts at 11:56:
And so we come to the end of my sneak peeks at the pianists who will be entertaining us in Emirgan during the 2018–2019 season. The videos that I have presented in this blog may or may not give a true and accurate picture of these musicians’ skillsets as they are today: since the above YouTube videos were filmed, the artists concerned may well have moved on in several respects. I duly apologise to them if I have overlooked the performances that they themselves would have chosen to showcase their talents.
I would like, if I may, to end with a comment on the campaign that is currently being conducted by the organisers of these concerts to provide schools with pianos, a campaign which has the slogan Her Okula Bir Piyano (‘A Piano for Every School’). This is a highly commendable enterprise, of course, and I have nothing but praise for it. The question that occupies me, however, is that of whether or not there will be ‘A Piano Tuner in Every Town’. Turkey suffers from a shortage of piano tuners. Maybe, in order to encourage young people to take up the profession, some kind benefactor will one day set up a training school for them.
This being said, I encourage everyone who can do so to attend at least nine of the Istanbul Recitals for the 2018-2019 season. So far the quality has been exceptional. Whiteness of face is assured.