Istanbul Music Festival Hosts Hilary Hahn with Mozart’s 5th Violin Concerto

Mozart, Bartók, Ravel: Hilary Hahn (violin), Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra, Sascha Goetzel (conductor), Hagia Eirene Museum, Istanbul, 21.6.2011 (AM)

Mozart: Overture to ‘The Clemency of Titus’, KV621; Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, KV219
Bartók: The Miraculous Mandarin Suite, Op. 19
Ravel: Bolero

Mozart, Bartók and Ravel can be an exceedingly strong mix: three very distinct composers from each of whom you can almost pick a random piece, program it correctly and the result will be a line-up that will satisfy the appetites of the majority of classical music lovers. Right programming is the keyword here, and if I had one grievance about this evening, it was the somewhat odd billing. Dedicating the first half of the program to Mozart is a fine idea, but I wished the two featured works weren’t as similar in temperament. Since Ms. Hahn was to play Mozart’s A major concerto (which doesn’t need any easing into), a more disparate opening work – say a serenade or the German Dances – could have worked better in my opinion. And, in the second half, Ravel’s Bolero was scheduled to follow The Miraculous Mandarin, which potentially waters down the exhilaration that is achieved at the end of Bartók’s suite. I can understand the urge to end the evening with a crowd-pleaser by all means. However, Bolero is bound to be liked by the crowds, no matter where you insert it in the program and its slowly rising tension reaching a climax at the end followed by the Bartók piece which picks up where Ravel left off and taking it to new heights would work better.

Now for the good stuff, though:

Borusan Philharmonic is a very fine ensemble. They obviously have a great rapport with their principal conductor Sascha Goetzel, who leads them with his highly animated and transparent gesticulations. Mr. Goetzel’s eyes and baton are constantly shifting from unit to unit with every measure of music to make sure they come forward or step back depending on what the score asks for. Mozart’s score for the overture doesn’t ask for much though. All the orchestral duties are clearly defined in the fairly short segments that make up the brief opening. Although written in his final year, The Clemency of Titus was written in haste and contains many recycled melodies from earlier works. BIFO read through the piece so effortlessly that Mr. Goetzel’s vivaciousness on the podium seemed a bit overstated.

The very first notes from Hilary Hahn’s celebrated violin came in the soft A-major triad ending back in G. Her tone was as soft as can be during this adagio interlude. The orchestra and Mr. Goetzel kept their dynamics below Ms. Hahn’s decibels, foregoing the ‘aparto’ indication, and playing with a pleasant and conciliatory pace throughout the movement. Ms. Hahn confidently hovered above her sections, showcasing only a minuscule part of her virtuosity in the final solo right before the coda. The second movement was graciously executed. The dramatic middle section of the adagio was particularly well done, with Ms. Hahn’s yearning melodies playing above the malleable quarter notes from the strings and the occasional horns calling out for attention. We were to wait for the French rondo’s ‘Turkish’ passages to get a glimpse at the excitement that the Borusan Philharmonic could exhibit. With Hilary Hahn’s energized entrance summoning the orchestra, Sascha Goetzel readied his orchestra by a high jump off the podium, scheduling his landing on the floor to coincide with the orchestra’s entry to the familiar a-minor segment. The vigor proliferated by this section carried the music until the end. There was much applause from the audience bearing within itself at least a little astringency at Ms. Hahn’s duties being over already, before we were given the chance to fully appreciate the range of her talents. We were treated to her gentle (Jekyll?) side, but how about her Hyde?

That, thankfully, arrived in the shape of Ernst’s Caprice on Schubert’s Der Erlkönig: a transcription of the fêted Lied for solo violin that the soloist played as her encore. I don’t suppose to know the words to describe the apparent difficulty of this work, but to Ms. Hahn it almost came naturally. The main theme played on two strings topped with the plucking of the other two and the lied melody looked as if the music was being carried out by not one or two, but three violins. It was astounding. Word is out that Hilary Hahn may be including this work on her next album. I hope it’s true: everyone should experience it.

The second half began with what it should have ended with: Bartók’s miraculous Miraculous Mandarin Suite. The much more packed orchestra on the stage was brimming with excitement as the initial up-and-down spiral of strings hit the auditorium. Mr. Goetzel fronted the orchestra, obviously challenging himself physically at least as much as the orchestra. He gave continuous cues to every segment, rising and receding in every measure. There was some compulsory mush in certain convoluted passages, and some layers during the dances seemed to be moving a little faster than others, but in general, the sudden changes in the beat and time were implemented seamlessly. The ensemble, together with the conductor, gave a thrilling fight scene followed by a compelling ending.

There is hardly a wrong way to do Ravel’s Bolero. The composer’s orchestral showpiece demands a steady beat, and a not-overzealous conductor. BIFO raised the ante very gradually, and Mr. Goetzel refrained from hurrying through the score. We ended up with a nice rendition, the finale of which was stimulating enough to draw a huge applause. Of course, when you end an evening with this piece, you can never be certain what the celebration is actually about: the musicians or the music.

Borusan Philharmonic was kept on the stage to unending rounds of applause, and finally obliged to play an encore. Turkish composer Ulvi Cemal Erkin’s ‘Kocekce’: a rhapsody of various Turkish folk dances for orchestra.

Alain Matalon