Strings and things

Mischa Maisky and the Franz Liszt Chamber Orhcestra at the Aya İrini – the Istanbul Music Festival reviews (part 4)

By John Shakespeare Dyson | June 6, 2018


The fourth event your reviewer attended during the 46th İKSV İstanbul Music Festival was a concert by the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra and cellist Mischa Maisky at the Aya İrini on Saturday, June 2. This was a feast of ultra-professional string sound – a real string beano, in fact. (Reader alert: the appalling puns and dodgy alliterations aren’t going to stop. You have been warned.)

The programme began with a performance of Grieg’s ‘Holberg Suite’, a work with which I have been familiar since childhood as the headmaster of my primary school used to play movements from it on a 78 record during assembly. Grieg (who although a Norwegian cultural icon actually received his musical training in Leipzig) is credited as having once said: ‘Artists like Bach and Beethoven erected churches and temples on the heights. I only wanted… to build dwellings for men in which they might feel happy and at home.’ The ‘Holberg Suite’ is certainly a comforting work – and thus a good mood-setter and concert opener. It was played with polish and panache by the Budapest-based Liszt Chamber Orchestra.

Grieg’s ebullient philosophy of life seems not to have been unduly dented by the loss of his only child, Alexandra, to meningitis. What can have been responsible for this irrepressibly sunny outlook, one wonders? A study of his birth chart reveals no planets in Cancer, the sign of the home and ‘the homely’; however, expansive Jupiter, the bringer of optimism, is conjunct dreamy, idealistic Neptune. (This in itself is nothing unusual, I have to say: most musicians have an aspect to Neptune somewhere in their chart. More of this later.) But jolly Jupiter is also in harmonious trine aspect to both his Gemini Sun and his Mercury. That surely explains his natural joie de vivre.

The second item on the programme was Haydn’s Cello Concerto No 1 in C Major – written between 1761 and 1765 in Esterházy, so the work has at least some connection with Hungary. The soloist was the renowned Riga-born and Leningrad-trained cellist Mischa Maisky (photographed here at the Aya İrini with the Franz Liszt Orchestra by Ali Güler). Even while he is making his first entrance onto the stage, his Gandalf-like appearance leaves no room for doubt that here is a person whose presence is going to be overwhelming.

Like Daniil Trifonov (but with less exaggerated movements), he sways to the music even when not actually playing, and leans towards the first violins with his eyes closed to exhort them to give of their utmost. But the musicianship fully lives up to the expectations created by the histrionic manner. I particularly enjoyed the way he starts an entry quietly, blending in with the other players as if hiding behind them, and only gradually emerging to prominence in a poco a poco crescendo. Another outstanding feature of his playing is his ability to produce three different timbres, all played within the same up-bow on the same note. Haydn’s first cello concerto is an important landmark in the literature of the instrument, especially as neither Mozart nor Beethoven favoured the cello with a concerto, and the soloist shone not just with his technique in the challenging fast gallops of the first and third movements but also with his warm, glowing tones in the Adagio.

This concluded the first half of the concert; but I have not quite finished with the subject of Russian Jewish musicians, of which Mr Maisky is one. A pupil of both Mstislav Rostropovich and Gregor Piatigorsky, and moreover a winner (in 1966) of the Tchaikovsky International Competition, he was imprisoned in a labour camp near Gorky for eighteen months in 1970. This led to his emigration to Israel in 1973.

The history of anti-semitism in Russia is a long and inglorious one, and the country’s Jewish population suffered not only from imported brutality (witness the murderous activities of Himmler’s Einsatzgruppen during the Second World War) but also from the home-grown variety. The Soviet authorities always refused to acknowledge the prevalence of anti-Jewish attitudes in their society, and did not take kindly to being confronted with what everybody knew but noone – with a few honourable exceptions – would dare to say. In 1962, for instance, Shostakovich was subjected to official criticism for dedicating his thirteenth symphony (a series of poems set to music) to the victims of Babi Yar, a ravine outside Kiev where many thousands of Jewish people were shot by the Nazis; instead, the powers-that-be insisted that the dedication should be to ‘the victims of fascism’, ignoring the fact that the poem on which the first movement is based is a specific and overt attack on anti-semitism. Both Shostakovich and Yevtushenko (the author of the poem) found themselves in deep trouble for speaking out: comparisons are made in the text between the Nazi massacre at Babi Yar and the treatment of Jews by the Russians and Ukrainians.

Here is a YouTube video of the first movement of Shostakovich’s thirteenth symphony conducted by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky:

And here are the words of the poem with an English translation: http://shostakovich.hilwin.nl/op113.html

Fortunately, many fine Jewish musicians emigrated from Russia in good time: there are so many that one is really spoilt for choice, but an outstanding example (in my view) is the pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch (1890-1963), a leading interpreter of Schumann and Rachmaninov in his day. Here is a video of him playing Schumann’s ‘Fantasiestucke’:


And now two interviews with him (the first long, the second very short) in which he describes conversations with Rachmaninov:

Moiseiwitsch was born in Odessa, a city that once had a particularly strong Jewish community. This Ukrainian port also left its mark on two names that may surprise you: George Gershwin and Bob Dylan. So you thought Gershwin was an American composer? Well, yes, I suppose so: after all, he was born in Brooklyn. But (as I have heard from a Russian informant) both his parents were Jewish émigrés from Odessa. And by the way, his first name was actually Jacob, not George. As for Bob Dylan (of whom it is sometimes said that his grandparents came from Odessa), the information I have is that one of his grandmothers was actually born in Kağızman, a smallish town in northeast Anatolia that is now in the Turkish province of Kars but would then have been under Russian occupation following the Ottomans’ war with Russia in 1877-78. Apparently, the lady concerned moved from Kağızman to Trabzon, and from thence to Odessa, her eventual point of departure for the United States. (Incidentally, Mr Robert Zimmerman (Bob Dylan)’s birth chart shows aspects to Neptune from all but one of his planets. Neptune strikes again!)

But I digress, as is my wont. In justification (such as it is) for this meretricious habit, I can only quote the words of William Blake in ‘Proverbs of Hell’:

Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement, are roads of Genius.

The second half of the concert began with a performance of Bartók’s ‘Divertimento for String Orchestra’. No doubt, as cultural ambassadors for Magyarország, as they themselves call their native Hungary, it was entirely appropriate that the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra should perform one of the works of Bartók Béla (this being the way his name was given on the cover of my copy of his ‘Mikrokosmos’ Book 6, the surname being placed before the forename in Hungarian).

My enthusiasm for all things Hungarian is currently at its height as I have just read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between the Woods and the Water for the first time; this is a superbly-written account of the author’s travels through Hungary and Romania, which were begun in 1933. I cannot understand how I ever missed this classic: it is one of the best travel books I have ever read. The accounts of Fermor’s wanderings through the woods of Transylvania are every bit as evocative as Kipling’s masterful short story ‘They’ (from Traffics and Discoveries, 1904), in which the narrator descends through the woods on the Sussex Downs to find some children – who later turn out to have been ghosts – playing in the garden of a country house.

As the wooded hills closed about me I stood up in the car to take the bearings of that great Down whose ringed head is a landmark for fifty miles across the low countries. I judged that the lie of the country would bring me across some westward running road that went to his feet, but I did not allow for the confusing veils of the woods. A quick turn plunged me first into a green cutting brimful of liquid sunshine, next into a gloomy tunnel where last year's dead leaves whispered and scuffled about my tyres. …’

I cannot pass on, however, without recording the fact that I find Bartók’s dissonances throughout the majority of his ‘Divertimento’ painful. No doubt they have a silver lining in that they are often resolved – eventually – onto something less jarring, and it is (of course) the irritant that prompts the oyster to produce the pearl; this particular oyster, however, could do without the aggravation. Frankly, the discords only really work in the middle movement of the ‘Divertimento’, the brooding molto adagio, where they contribute to the admirably skilful buildup of tension – a mood the orchestra created with great success. But in the outer movements, which are faster and livelier, the jammings of the elbow into the stomach only set me on edge. One might wish, too, that Mr Bartók had taken a few lessons on the subject of register from Dmitri Shostakovich (a composer I can’t help coming back to) and had created a little espace in his chords, which sometimes come over as a trifle muddy in the middle.

Perhaps surprisingly, this work was written in only 16 days, while Bartók was staying in the Swiss Alps as the guest of Paul Sacher, conductor of the Basel Chamber Orchestra (who had earlier commissioned the composer’s ‘Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta’). When one takes account of the fact that Bartók never set pen to paper before he had worked out exactly what he was going to do, however, his swiftness in Switzerland becomes more understandable. Here is the score of the ‘Divertimento’ on YouTube:

But the really significant fact about this piece is that it was written in August 1939. Apparently, the composer did not once look at a newspaper during this time, knowing that it would probably disturb his concentration. In that, of course, he was absolutely right: subsequent events unfolded in such a way that after leaving Europe for America the following year, Bartók would never see his native land again. (To return to the themes both of Sussex and of Jewishness, Virginia Woolf’s last novel, Between the Acts, is set in an English village – probably Rodmell in Sussex, where she lived with her husband, Leonard – during the summer preceding the outbreak of war. While the villagers perform a pageant, a warplane flies overhead, giving everyone present a sense of grim foreboding. The novel was finished shortly before the author drowned herself in the River Ouse in March 1941. In expectation of a German invasion, the Woolfs had laid in a store of petrol in their garage, ready to immolate themselves if need be: Leonard was Jewish.)

Let us not succumb to gloom, however, and instead return to our concert: the last item on the programme was Tchaikovsky’s ‘Variations on a Rococo Theme’, written in December 1876 and January 1877 – interestingly, not long before the outbreak of war with the Ottoman Empire. The original scoring of the ‘Variations’ included woodwinds and horns as well as strings, but things work just as well with strings on their own, the virtuosity of the cellist being the main attraction.

I have selected a performance of this work by Narek Hakhnazaryan, a young Armenian cellist, to entertain you. I must point out at once that in passing over fine performances by Messrs Maisky and Rostropovich my intention is not to demean these great artists; far be it from me to do anything of the kind. I just feel that this young man’s evident enjoyment of what he is doing – and the close-ups of his sidelong grins at his fellow-musicians – are worthy of special note. As an additional bonus, the sound quality is particularly pleasing in this recording:

I asked an Armenian friend (a writer of dictionaries) to supply me with the Armenian for ‘Well done!’, but was told that in a situation of this kind Armenians would naturally say ‘Bravo!’ rather than anything more culturally distinctive. My informant did tell me, however, that one might also say ‘Abris!’, which apparently translates as ‘May you live’ (in Turkish, this would be the optative form ‘Yaşayasın’). So I applaud Mr Hakhnazaryan’s performance with both a ‘Bravo!’ and an ‘Abris!’.

He may have some way to go, however, before he approaches Mischa Maisky’s variety of tone – especially the latter’s breathless intensity in the pianissimo sections, which set your reviewer’s hair on end. After the Tchaikovsky we watched a video presentation of Maisky’s career, and the soloist was presented with an award. He then made a short speech in which he praised his audience for the reception he habitually receives in Turkey.

I am afraid that is a subject on which I have reservations, since at this point I must return (with some trepidation) to a theme I first broached in my observations on the first concert of the Festival, during which my neighbours in the audience were constantly occupied with their mobile telephones. During the concert on June 2, I had on my right a lady who insisted on filming the first minute of each work on her iPhone – in spite of the warnings coming not only from the loudspeakers but also from the people sitting behind her. I myself stayed silent (albeit with difficulty), as in my view it is not the place of a gentleman to criticise a lady he does not know for her public behaviour. I did, however, lean so close to her iPhone during one of her periodic interactions with it that she noticed. I was rewarded with a dirty look, to which I responded with a seraphic smile. It was, in the words of Rimbaud, le bleu regard, – qui ment!

Not only this, but the couple sitting on my left felt it to be imperative that they should start texting during the Bartók. It was, however, a minute from the end of the Tchaikovsky that the crowning nemesis came: the lady on my right actually answered a call on her telephone. What is it that prompts people to attend to the demands of their electronic devices with such desperate fidelity? Have they been given Artificial Intelligence implants that compel them, willy-nilly, to microwave their brains at intervals of no more than ten minutes?

I would like to make a suggestion, if I may: during future İKSV Music Festivals, let us have a team of young camerapersons on duty, each one standing in front of one of the blocks of seats. When the cameraperson sees a member of the audience operating their telephone, she or he films the person concerned on her or his own device. Afterwards, the İKSV makes the recordings public on the internet – a process for which I would like to put forward the title ‘Frame ’n Shame’. Only in this way will it be possible to get these Rajas of Rudeness and Divas of Disrespect to refrain from their nefarious practice.

But to end on a less sour note: at the conclusion of the proceedings we were given an unexpected treat – for which I personally was extremely grateful as it more than restored my good humour. Mischa Maisky played the solo part in Hector Villa-Lobos’ ‘Bachianas Brasileiras’ No 1, ‘Preludio (Modinha)’, accompanied by seven Turkish cellists, and the whole ensemble performed exquisitely. It was a noble gesture, and brought tears to my eyes. So rather than finish with ‘The Lady with the Laptop’, or ‘The Miraculous Mobile’ (sorry, Bartók!), I would prefer to leave you with an expression of heartfelt appreciation for ‘Mischa and his Musical Myrmidons’.  

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