Concerts to remember: Özgür Aydın at the Cemal Reşit Rey

By John Shakespeare Dyson | May 13, 2024

On March 22 I went to the Atatürk Cultural Centre to hear the USA-born Turkish pianist Özgür Aydın play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 4 in G major, accompanied by the Istanbul State Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of the Finnish conductor Ari Rasilainen. In the second half, the orchestra played the Symphony No 2 in A major by the little-known Russian composer Vasily Kalinnikov.

This was not the first time I had heard Özgür Aydın play. Last October I witnessed a performance by him of Bach’s Goldberg Variations in an event at the Cemal Reşit Rey Concert Hall that was held in commemoration of the late Turkish pianist Ayşegül Sarıca.

Having criticised him in my review of that concert for the faintness of his playing in the first ten minutes, and knowing that he plays Beethoven well (his recording of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No 17, available on YouTube, being a case in point), I felt the need to redress the balance by listening to him play something I thought he would excel at. I was not disappointed.

Özgür Aydın, born to Turkish parents in Colorado, USA, currently lives in Berlin and teaches at the Universität der Künste (University of the Arts) there. His musical career began at the Ankara State Conservatoire; thereafter, he studied with Peter Katin at the Royal College of Music in London and with Karl-Heinz Kämmerling at the Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien in Hanover. In addition he has received instruction from a number of important pianists such as Tatiana Nikolayeva (who incidentally is one of my personal favourites), Sir András Schiff and Ferenc Rados. 

Mr Aydın’s first public performance of a concerto took place in 1997, when he played Brahms’s Piano Concerto No 1 with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. That same year he won the ARD International Music Competition in Munich and the Nippon Music Award in Tokyo. Orchestras with which he has appeared as soloist include the BBC Concert Orchestra, the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, the Slovak State Philharmonic and the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra. He has also given recitals at prestigious venues such as the Carnegie Hall in New York, the Wigmore Hall in London, the Herkulessaal in Munich and the Suntory Hall in Tokyo. 

As for the work he played to us (Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 4), the composer began writing it in 1805, and finished it in early 1806. At the work’s premiere in Vienna in 1808, he himself played the solo part while conducting the orchestra at the same time. (Considering his habitual gruffness of manner and his odd conducting style, it is hardly surprsing that the performance was not particularly successful.) Unlike his third and fifth piano concertos, which are tense and dramatic in mood, this one is more relaxed: after all, the work was written in G major, one of the more upbeat keys.

One unusual feature of this work is that each movement starts with a piano solo, whereas the usual pattern in Beethoven’s time was for the orchestra to announce the theme at the beginning of each movement. In this concerto there are also some non-standard – and pleasantly piquant – features such as the fact that the orchestra comes in in a completely different key from the piano after the initial solo in the first movement.

Things got off to a good start in the performance on March 22. The orchestra produced a nice rounded tone right from the start, underpinned by a fulsome bass sound (I was pleased to see that four double-basses had been provided – no skimping there). Where necessary, the orchestra was incisive, but never intrusive. I thought the rubato the pianist allowed himself early in the first movement might throw the orchestra off the beat, but I need not have worried: they followed him with commendable accuracy even where he (ever so slightly) bent the rhythm. So full marks on the coordination front. In the cadenza in the first movement, there was an ever-so-slight reminder of Mr Aydın’s tentativeness in the Goldberg Variations, where on occasions his playing was so pianissimo as to be almost inaudibilissimo. However, I very much admired the appropriateness of his phrasing as the cadenza progressed.

The second movement is another unusual feature of this concerto, being structured as a recitativo with short piano solos punctuated by interjections from the orchestra, as if the piano were a singer in a Handel opera. This is, in a sense, a throwback to an earlier time, recitativo being associated more with the Baroque era than the classical (or early Romantic – take your pick) period. I love this dark movement (shudder!), with its suppressed anguish that puts me in mind of the slow movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 23 in A major, K488. Both these movements are consummate tear-jerkers, reminding us that geniuses hurt sometimes.

The orchestra came in in perfect sync each time it had a comment to make on the piano solo – no easy task in a slow movement of any kind, but especially difficult in this one because of the frequency of cold entries of this kind. At the end of the movement Özgür Aydın’s fondness for ultra-quiet playing served him well: the final cadence was a suitably hushed lapse into black despair. I thought his last movement could have been a tad more forthright, however. I would have welcomed a little more tightness in the rhythm, and a clockwise turn of the volume dial in his solos. This being said, I enjoyed his playing here, as indeed I did throughout the concerto. I will say it again: Mr Aydın plays Beethoven well.

The second half was taken up by the Symphony No 2 in A major by Vasily Kalinnikov (1866-1901). I will let Wikipedia describe his output and compositional style:

His body of work consists of two symphonies, several additional orchestral works, and numerous songs, all of them imbued with characteristics of folksong. His symphonies, particularly the First, were frequently performed in the early 20th century. Kalinnikov’s musical style was inspired by composers such aas Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, and is notable for its expressive melodies and lush orchestration.

Poor Kalinnikov, the impecunious son of a police official (he could not afford the fees at the Moscow Conservatory), did not enjoy good health. In 1892 Tchaikovsky recommended him for the post of main conductor of the Maly Theatre, and later that year for that of conductor of the Moscow Italian Theatre – but it was not be. Wikipedia again:

However, due to his worsening tuberculosis, Kalinnikov had to resign from his theatre appointments and move to the warmer southern climate of the Crimea. He lived at Yalta for the rest of his life, and it was there that he wrote the main part of his music, including his two symphonies... In Yalta he joined two other famous tubercular patients, Maxim Gorky and Anton Chekhov. Exhausted, he died of tuberculosis on 11 January 1901, just two days before his 35th birthday...

Vasily Kalinnikov’s reputation was established with his First Symphony, written between 1894 and 1895, which had great success when Alexander Vinogradsky conducted it at a Russian Musical Society concert in Kyiv on February 20, 1897. Further performances swiftly followed in Moscow, Vienna, Berlin and Paris.

‘Lush orchestration’ is absolutely correct: before the performance began, I noticed the arrival of three trombones, a tuba and a harp to give the sound a little more oomph (in the case of the brass instruments) and class (in the case of the harp). In the first movement there was some excellent brass playing in passages that reminded me of Mussorgsky. I thought the violas and kettledrums, too, shone here. Throughout the work the intonation in the woodwind department (always a dicey area) was spot-on, and the horn solo that announces the last movement was nicely played. So all in all, everyone did well.

Here is a performance of Vasily Kalinnikov’s tuneful four-movement Symphony No 2 by the Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by Neeme Järvi.

Lastly, I would like to return to the subject of Beethoven and Özgür Aydın. There is, unfortunately, no performance of him playing the Piano Concerto No 4 on YouTube. However, an outstanding one by Emil Gilels with the Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by George Szell (recorded in 1968), is available.

I would like to leave you with a performance of Beethoven by Mr Aydın that I think is a very fine one. Here he is playing the gorgeous third movement of the Piano Sonata No 17 (dubbed ‘The Tempest’). The sense of urgency he brings to the piece is entirely in keeping with the composer’s restless spirit.

This concert was an excellent effort on the part of the Istanbul State Symphony Orchestra, who have upped their game considerably in recent years, especially from the point of view of their accompanying skills. Also, I hope Özgür Aydın visits Turkey again soon, and look forward to hearing him. Perhaps he might consider a Beethoven recital? But I must leave things of this nature to the artist, who must – and indeed will – always have the last word.

Posted in Music & Performing Arts, - Classical Music, - Musical Shares
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