Pleasure and pain on the night of the full moon

Daniel Müller-Schott and the Tekfen Philharmonic at the Istanbul Festival

By John Shakespeare Dyson | June 19, 2019


The Tekfen Philharmonic Orchestra gave its second concert of this year’s İKSV Festival in the Lütfi Kırdar Concert Hall on June 17. As with their Spring Concert on March 21, it was the day of a full moon, and once again the spacious terrace outside the building was an ideal viewing platform for moon-watching and Bosphorus-gazing. Surely this, even more than the terrace at the Seed in Emirgan, is the ideal spot for a night-time performance of selections from Debussy’s Préludes, Book Two: the show would kick off, of course, with La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune (‘The Terrace for Moonlight Audiences’) – followed, perhaps, by a dance display to the accompaniment of Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses (‘The Fairies are Exquisite Dancers’). The audience is then transported to a boat on the Bosphorus for a rendition of Ondine (‘Undine’ – the courageous among them could of course don swimsuits and dive overboard to consort with the water spirits during this one), and finally they watch a waterborne pyrotechnic extravaganza to the music of Feux d’artifice (‘Fireworks’) – if the pianist can cope with the boat’s rocking motion, that is. I say this in the hope that, some day, someone will take me up on the suggestion…

The first half of the concert on June 17 consisted of Mussorgsky’s orchestral poem Night on the Bare Mountain, followed by Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 1, while the second half was devoted to Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, the Pathétique.

The Mussorgsky was described in my piece on the Istanbul State Symphony Orchestra’s concert of April 5. The Tekfen Orchestra was in fine form, and the changes in tempo were managed seamlessly. This time, too, the woodwind department’s coordination (which I found wanting in the festival's opening concert on June 11) was exemplary, and the conductor Aziz Shokhakimov’s expressive hand movements were, as always, a pleasure to watch.

In Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto, composed in 1959, the soloist was Daniel Müller-Schott. Having walked onto the stage and sat down on the chair atop his podium, he looked down and examined the surface of the podium at length. Eventually he informed the audience that the thing was the wrong way round, and that he would not be able to position his cello correctly until it was reversed – otherwise the metal spike at the bottom of his instrument would slip and the cello would very likely launch itself off the stage because the device intended to hold the spike steady was wrongly positioned. We then had the entertaining spectacle of the podium being rotated on its axis by an attendant, ably assisted by the conductor and the soloist.

Mr Müller-Schott is a world-famous cellist. I will quote the programme notes on his career:

Daniel Müller-Schott studied under Walter Nothas, Heinrich Schiff and Steven Isserlis. He was supported personally by Anne-Sophie Mutter and received, among other things, the Aida Stucki Prize as well as a year of private tuition under Mstislav Rostropovich. In 1992 at the age of fifteen, Daniel Müller-Schott won first prize at the International Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians in Moscow. In celebration of the Day of German Unity in 2018 and in memory of his deceased teacher Mstislav Rostropovich, Daniel Müller-Schott played music by Johann Sebastian Bach in front of about 500,000 listeners at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.

The concert in Istanbul was not the first time he and Aziz Shokhakimov had come across each other. For his latest CD (which appeared in 2018), Mr Müller-Schott recorded works by Tchaikovsky, Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, conducted by none other than Mr Shokhakimov.

The cello-playing, as one might expect, was a delight to listen to. The ‘Russell Steinberg’ website – see below – calls the second movement of the Shostakovich concerto ‘an expressive essay that begins in tragic reflection and heads for extreme passion’, and here the soloist’s tone yanked the heart-strings with pleasing insistence. The third movement, a long and very challenging cadenza at the top of the instrument’s range, was played without any seeming difficulty. (The work in general has a multitude of runs, double-stops in awkward thumb positions, stopped and natural harmonics, and left-hand pizzicato – all nightmarish for the inexperienced performer.) But it was not only the cellist who impressed with his technical skill: apart from the cello-horn duets, there were some tricky horn solos – again at the top of the range (where in the case of this instrument the minutest slip in embouchure produces a blooping wrong note). All of these merciless passages were beautifully played by Ertuğrul Köse, who as the Tekfen Philharmonic’s first horn gave a star performance. The orchestration for this concerto is quite sparse. In fact the single horn is the only brass instrument.

Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 1 was written especially for the great virtuoso Mstislav Rostropovich (1927–2007). I regard this as a highly important work that constituted a valuable and long-overdue addition to the cello repertoire, and am therefore going to provide links to three articles on the subject. Heads-up: they are of gradually increasing complexity. The first is an overview from the Kennedy Center website, written in a pleasantly accessible style by Peter Laki. The second, by Karl Henning, is from the Good-Music-Guide website. This one has more information on what was going on in the composer’s personal and professional life at the time – lots of helpful input from Stalin’s benevolent and appreciative régime. The third, from the Russell Steinberg website, has a good general description of Shostakovich’s harmonic language (in the third paragraph, beginning ‘But with such a determination …’). The comparisons to Beethoven don’t always convince me, but the rest of what is said – especially about the cadenza – rings true.

Among the many versions of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 1 available on YouTube, those by Rostropovich must inevitably take pride of place. There are several of these, but the benchmark performance is probably the one he recorded in London in 1960. The conductor is Sir Charles Groves. (All the foregoing information is taken from the comments below the video, by the way.) Don’t let the initial infelicities of intonation put you off:

The second, in which Rostropovich is accompanied by the Philadelphia Orchestra (conducted by Eugene Ormandy), has the score – which here is occasionally fuzzy and not entirely legible, I fear. In spite of this, it is well worth studying for the orchestration, which is lean and mean – though Shostakovich does allow himself a double bassoon:

To give Daniel Müller-Schott his due, he recorded the concerto on the Orfeo label in 2008, but this version is (unsurprisingly) not on YouTube. I notice from the blurb that: ‘Erik Levi is deeply impressed by the conviction and incisiveness with which cellist Daniel Müller-Schott tackles two of the greatest concertos of the past century.’ (BBC Music Magazine, Proms 2008)

Well, well, it seems the past has caught up with me once again. Professor Erik Levi (author of Music in the Third Reich and Mozart and the Nazis), if indeed it is the same person, was at Manchester Grammar School when I was there in the 1960s, although he was several years older than me. I remember him playing the solo part in Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No 2 with the school orchestra…

There is, however, a YouTube recording of Daniel Müller-Schott playing Shostakovich’s first cello concerto with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, conducted by Yakov Kreizberg:

After that prolonged blast of Shostakovich info, I must return to the concert on June 17. (Those with low pain thresholds may find this composer’s music painful to listen to, and I duly apologise to them. Yes, I can see their point. The theory that he deliberately goes for the listener’s nerve ends with a blowtorch in one hand and a coaster of sulphuric acid in the other has some truth to it: after all, the poor man tried to kill himself three times, and was not an entirely blissful bunny. The story goes that while out of favour with Gentleman Joe Stalin, he took to sleeping on the landing outside the family flat so that his wife and children would not be disturbed when the secret police came to take him away during the night.)

Mr Müller-Schott gave us two encores at the end of his performance in Istanbul: The Song of the Birds by Pablo Casals, and a work originally written for guitar, played pizzicato throughout on the cello (quite an achievement, this). Both pieces were very warmly received, as indeed his rendition of the concerto had been. He was, no doubt, helped by the fact that he was playing a very fine instrument made in Venice by Matteo Goffriller in the year 1727.

The Tekfen Philharmonic concluded with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 6 in B minor, the Pathétique. This may be a well-known and popular work in the current era, but the audience for its first performance in St Petersburg in 1893 – only nine days before the composer’s death – didn’t know what to make of it, especially the downer-overdosed let’s-all-lie-down-and -die’ ending. See Victoria Longdon’s description of the work on the Classic FM website, with all sorts of things to click on. An account by Tom Service on the Guardian website has links to performances by two Russian orchestras (scroll down to ‘Five key recordings’):

My own favourite among the videos available on YouTube is probably that recorded in 1965 by the Moscow Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Kirill Kondrashin. It has, I think, a pleasing level of drama and lashings of grittiness – some of which may be due to the astringency of the recording quality. Sock that darkness to me, baby! The last movement, in particular, is superb (this starts at 35:03):

This is not to say that Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra’s performance in Japan in 1995 is anything less than exceptional. The clarinet solo that starts at 10:00 is in just the right tempo – nice and slow – and is followed by a perfectly coordinated explosion at 11:07. The brass section excels itself. Full marks, in particular, to the trombones – Tchaikovsky does them proud with a long, gut-busting passage that begins at 13:57 and ends at 15:30:

I thought the Tekfen Philharmonic performed this work well in the concert on June 17. My companion, who is half-Russian, grumbled that no non-Russian orchestra can possibly give to Tchaikovsky’s Sixth the searing sense of desolation it requires (except in the second and third movements, of course). He conceded, however, that the Tekfen Philharmonic, being made up largely of young musicians, might very well play it better 20 years down the line. I thought this a little harsh. Maybe, I replied, they did not quite have the confidence to pull out all the stops in the tear-jerking bits, but I still thought they performed very creditably – though the conductor might have varied the tempi within the first and last movements more than he did.

In the orchestra’s defence, I reminded him that the acoustics in the Lütfi Kırdar Concert Hall are not perfect, and that as a result the volume of sound, especially from the string section, lacked fullness. My companion agreed, pointing out that although there were six double-basses there were only eight cellos – not really enough to provide a copper-bottomed bass line. He also said that in some concert halls you do not get a good sound if you are sitting near the front (as we were), and this might have been a limiting factor.

And so, discussing how the concert hall might be redesigned to give it better acoustics, we ventured out into the muggy, humid but beautifully moonlit June night. I will conclude with a poem by Victor Hugo appropriately entitled Nuits de juin – ‘June Nights’ (translation source: http://allpoetry.com/June-Nights… the translator is not named, and I humbly apologise to him or her for being unable to credit them as they deserve):

L'été, lorsque le jour a fui, de fleurs couverte
La plaine verse au loin un parfum enivrant;
Les yeux fermés, l'oreille aux rumeurs entrouverte,
On ne dort qu'à demi d'un sommeil transparent.

Les astres sont plus purs, l'ombre paraît meilleure ;
Un vague demi-jour teint le dôme éternel ;
Et l'aube douce et pâle, en attendant son heure,
Semble toute la nuit errer au bas du ciel.

(‘In summer, when day has fled, the plain covered with flowers
Pours out far away an intoxicating scent;
Eyes shut, ears half open to noises,
We only half sleep in a transparent slumber.

The stars are purer, the shade seems pleasanter;
A hazy half-day colours the eternal dome;
And the sweet pale dawn awaiting her hour
Seems to wander all night at the bottom of the sky.’)

I wish happy summer slumbers to all readers!

Posted in Music and Performing Arts, Classical Music, Musical Shares
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