A master’s voice

İlyas Mirzayev’s Cello Concerto and a tribute to the inspirational conductor Saim Akçıl

By John Shakespeare Dyson | January 5, 2024

On December 2 I attended a concert at the Cemal Reşit Rey Concert Hall at which the CRR Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Mr Rengim Gökmen, one of Turkey’s leading wielders of the baton. This was one of a series of concerts – entitled Yüzyılın Yüzleri (‘The Century’s Faces’) – that are intended to commemorate the Turkish Republic’s centenary. Only two works were played: the contemporary Azeri composer İlyas Mirzayev’s Cello Concerto and Ahmed Adnan Saygun’s Symphony No 5. I had some house guests to look after, and was prevented by my responsibilities as host from staying for the whole concert. As a result, I missed the Saygun symphony; there is, however, an excellent recording of this work that I will list when the time comes. As for the cello concerto, the reverse situation applies – I heard the work, but am unable to present a recorded performance.

One of the purposes of this concert was to honour Professor Saim Akçıl, who for many years was conductor of the Tekfen Philharmonic Orchestra. Prof Akçıl was originally a violinist of note who performed as soloist with the Presidential Symphony Orchestra, the State Symphony Orchestras in Istanbul and İzmir, and orchestras in a large number of other countries. In 1986, however, he experienced a problem with the fingers of his left hand, and was obliged to abandon violin-playing. Undeterred by this untimely termination of his career as a soloist, Prof Akçıl became not just a conductor but also a founder of orchestras: both the Borusan Chamber Orchestra (later expanded to become the ‘Borusan Philharmonic Orchestra’) and the Tekfen Philharmonic Orchestra came into being thanks to his efforts. Some years before his retirement, I had the good fortune to be present at the Aya Irene for an excellent performance – under his skilful direction – of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 5 by the Tekfen Philharmonic.

During the setting up of the Tekfen Orchestra in 1992, and for many years afterwards, Prof Akçıl very sensibly chose to recruit most of its members from the countries of the former Soviet Union. At the behest of the late Mr Nihat Gökyiğit, the idealistic and far-seeing founder of Tekfen Holding (who was commemorated in concerts in İzmir and Istanbul on December 6 and 7), he also included musicians from places such as Israel and Palestine where conflict was taking place, as a step towards reconciliation. Now, however, these people’s places have largely been taken by Turkish musicians – a consequence of the rapid, and of course extremely satisfying, rise in standards of classical music performance that we have witnessed in Turkey during recent years.

I have heard Prof Akçıl conduct works by İlyas Mirzayev on a number of occasions. In addition to the Symphony No 2 or ‘Symphony of Three Seas’, a work commissioned by Tekfen Holding, I have also heard him conduct a number of Mirzayev’s shorter pieces, some of which feature Turkish traditional instruments – examples being the Black Sea Rhapsody (which showpieces the gayda, the Turkish version of the bagpipes) and the Ney Concerto, the ney being an end-blown flute made from the ‘pike cane’, a variety of reed whose Latin name is Arundo Donax.

The outstanding features of Mirzayev’s three-movement Cello Concerto are (firstly) the concern it displays for formal considerations – all the themes being conscientiously recycled, albeit in varying disguises – and (secondly) the mastery of orchestration it exhibits. As befits a former student of the Baku and Moscow Conservatoires, İlyas Mirzayev possesses a highly advanced technique of a kind one would wish Turkish students of composition were able to acquire in their home country. (Regrettably, many departments of composition in Turkey fail to teach their students harmony and counterpoint, the basic tools of the composer’s craft. In addition, standards of orchestration are often lamentably low. As a result, in far too many cases would-be composers fall at the first hurdle – that of technical competence.)

It is, indeed, the sophisticated compositional technique of the Cello Concerto that marks it out as being in a completely different category from the productions of the great majority of Turkish composers. (I only wish this were not so, but unfortunately it is nothing more than the truth.) At the first performance in İzmir in 2011, Moscow-trained cellist Eren Güllü was accompanied by the İzmir State Symphony Orchestra, conducted by İbrahim Yazıcı. The soloist for the performance in Istanbul on December 2, meanwhile, was the highly talented young French cellist Aurélien Pascal.

Before the proceedings began, Prof Saim Akçıl came on stage to be presented with a plaque. Then conductor Rengim Gökmen raised his baton to begin the concerto. The first thing we heard was a tense, and not a little dark, cello solo in the low register, and it was this serious, dramatic mood that dominated the first movement. Initially atonal, with some use of note clusters, the music eventually softened into a lyrical tonality, and the cello was partnered in various duets by the vibraphone, the harp and the tubular bells. This respite was only temporary, however: a plaintive lament in three-four time was rudely interrupted by a fortissimo lightning strike from the whole orchestra, and this led into a tumultuous climax. When the violence of the storm had abated, the movement ended with a wistful, reflective passage of ‘night music’.

İlyas Mirzayev’s ability to create any orchestral flavour you may care to name was amply illustrated by the second movement – a humoresque that was full-on Hollywood, with all its ‘American pie’ jocularity. At one point the high jinks, reminiscent of a hoedown at a rural community’s dancing party, were interrupted by more serious stuff, but it was Hollywood that won out in the end, and this expertly-crafted piece was rounded off with a consummately good-humoured trombone glissando. 

With the third and last movement, we in the audience were brought back to the harsh realities of life with a bump – or so we may have thought, but there were surprises in store. Things began with a massive, ultra-serious and not a little threatening chorale from the brass section. A cello solo maintained the sombre mood for a while, but soon a tragi-comic dance in one of the characteristic rhythms of Turkish folk music took over. The music then built up to a climax in which the brass chorale returned with a vengeance, but afterwards there was a relaxation of tensions, and a more optimistic mood prevailed. Even this did not last long, however, and the cello entered with renewed complaints. Just as we were expecting the piece to end in floods of tears, the Anatolian dance rhythm made a comeback, and a surprise ending brought the concerto to a light-hearted close.

The solo cello – whose voice could invariably be clearly heard, the composer having taken care not to obscure it with intrusive orchestral parts – was played with extraordinary skill by Aurélien Pascal. His intonation, even in the high register, was perfect throughout, his tone exquisite, and his musicianship impeccable. (When the leader of the first violins mistimed her entry into a duet with him, he remained absolutely unperturbed. As a result, few people will have noticed the hitch.) Born in 1994, M Pascal studied with Philippe Müller at the Conservatoire national supérieur de musique de Paris (CNSMP). He has also received tuition from János Starker in Paris, Basel and Indiana, and has attended master classes with Gautier Capuçon. His most recent achievement is to have been one of the musicians included in the ‘Revelation Instrumental Soloist of the Year’ category at the Victoires de la musique classique award event in 2023. He is currently perfecting his art with Frans Helmerson and Gary Hoffman at the Kronberg Academy in Germany.

Here is an article – in French – by Suzana Kubik on the ‘France Musique’ website that contains an interview with Aurélien Pascal and a recording of him playing Wagner (in an arrangement by David Popper) and Mussorgsky. During the interview, he says that the first instruments he learnt were the violin and the piano; however, he soon gave up the violin for the cello, the reason being that the cello would allow him to physically ‘enfold’ the instrument he was playing, and in this way become one with it. He also tells us that one of his motives for becoming a professional musician was that this career would provide opportunities for travel and for meeting people of other cultures.

As I pointed out earlier, I am unable to provide a link to a performance of İlyas Mirzayev’s Cello Concerto. (The first performance in İzmir is available on YouTube, but the orchestra is unfortunately having a bad day, so I have let this one pass.) I can, however, provide a link to his website, where you can find recordings of some of his other works. He is probably best known for his Concerto for Ney and Orchestra, in which he often partners neyzen (‘ney-player’) Ercan Irmak in performance, but his Yanus in Orient, his Symphony No 2 (‘Üç Denizin Senfonisi’) and his Violin Concerto are also worth a listen. Temple Door, Padişahların Torunları (‘Descendants of the Sultans’), Mad Forest and The Turtles’ Wedding Dance, meanwhile, are duets in which Mr Mirzayev, who was trained as a jazz pianist in Baku by Vagif Mustafazadeh (the father of internationally-famous singer Aziza Mustafa Zadeh) is accompanying Theodosii Spassov, a Bulgarian musician who plays the kaval flute. Co-ordination between the two is so perfect that it is difficult to believe that Temple Door, Mad Forest and The Turtles’ Wedding Dance are improvisations, recorded in a studio outside Sofia without any preparation or rehearsal whatsoever. Here is the link: http://ilyasmirzayev.com/

Ahmed Adnan Saygun’s Symphony No 3, the second piece on the programme for the concert on December 2, dates from 1960. By this time the composer had abandoned his earlier ‘cultural nationalism’ for a less stilted and less restrictive ideology – one in which the goal was to create ‘universal music’. Gone are the portentous posturings of his Yunus Emre Oratorio (1942), whose laudable message has prompted audiences to overlook its over-use of open fourths and fifths (a feature that is borrowed wholesale from Bartók but is used crudely, without this latter’s sense of taste) and its dreadful orchestration – surely incompetent enough to make Vincent d’Indy, Saygun’s teacher of composition in Paris, turn in his grave. Instead, we see a genuine attempt to exploit the possibilities of the orchestra and create more adventurous textures.

Although this new departure results in a more ‘difficult’ listening experience, I personally find Ahmed Adnan Saygun’s new style, with all its weirdness, a refreshing change from his earlier excursions into the quagmire of primitivist monotony. The austerity of the aesthetic in the Symphony No 3 has prompted music critic David Hurwitz, the founder of ClassicsToday.com (a review site for recordings of classical music), to place its composer in the category of ‘tough symphonists’. In my view that is not at all an inaccurate description. In the following video, Mr Hurwitz’ fulsome praise for Saygun begins at 17:05, and at 21:27 he plays the symphony’s third movement.

Now, here is Saygun’s four-movement Symphony No 3 performed with great skill by the Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz under the direction of Ari Rasilainen. The fevered, unquiet first movement is a good illustration of the composer’s determination to raise himself to a new level by exploiting the possibilities of the orchestra. The tedious second movement (which begins at 12:50) sees a temporary comeback by the creatures of the swamp and the hollow, meaningless chords they inhabit, but other than this we are mercifully spared any dippings in the mire of 1930s cultural nationalism. Readers are encouraged to skip this, and go on to 23:03 for the rhythmic third movement – the one Mr Hurwitz singles out. This scherzo, while quite entertaining, unfortunately lacks variety – a middle section in a contrasting rhythm would have improved matters – and goes on too long. (In my opinion, unless you are as good at creating structures for pieces of this genre as Anton Bruckner and Dmitri Shostakovich were, your scherzos should deliver their punch and leave.) The finale – beginning at 33:05 – briefly threatens a return to the ponderous portentousness, but soon recovers itself, and the symphony bows out with a nicely-timed surprise ending. Not a bad effort, Mr Saygun. You have come a long way in the last twenty years, so congratulations!

And so all that remains is to apologise once again for my early departure from this concert, to praise Rengim Gökmen for his outstandingly skilful direction of the CRR Symphony Orchestra in İlyas Mirzayev’s Cello Concerto, to reiterate my wonderment at the extraordinary talents of Aurélien Pascal, the soloist, and to express the hope that this attractive, professionally-written piece may find its place in the repertoires of orchestras around the world.

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