Kovacevich Plays a Mesmerizing Beethoven 4th piano concerto in Istanbul

Beethoven, Usmanbas, Corigliano, Liszt, Liszt/Adams: Stephen Kovacevich (piano), Akbank Chamber Orchestra, Cem Mansur (conductor), Hagia Eirene Museum, Istanbul, 16. 6.2011 (AM) 

Beethoven : Ruins of Athens Overture, Op. 113; Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58
Usmanbas : Concerto (commissioned by Istanbul Music Festival, World Premiere)
Corigliano: Voyage (for strings)
Liszt: Angelus; At The Grave of Richard Wagner
Liszt/Adams: La Lugubre Gondola

One doesn’t have to search deep to see the irony in performing Ruins of Athens in Hagia Eirene Museum, Istanbul. The incidental music is tuned to the play [of the same name], which is about Minerva, who wakes up after 2000 years to find the Greek Parthenon in ruins and the city occupied by the Turks. Life imitating art – except Hagia Eirene is definitely not in ruins (it is kept in very good shape, in fact) and nowadays, the March of the Janissaries is on display for tourists on special occasions only.

Tonight, apparently, wasn’t one of those occasions, as Mr. Mansur together with his Akbank Chamber Orchestra treated us to the overture only, bypassing the Turkish March. The music started softly enough, with the strings offering the gentle and moving introductory theme, followed by the woodwinds bringing in the main subject. Beethoven, then, asks for all voices to converge fortissimo, as a display for glorification of Emperor Franz as the protector of reason and culture. The rhythmic thumps of the orchestra are patriotic, they are there to give a sense of the once-grandiose empire, but unfortunately, tonight the reverberation in the Hagia Eirene Hall drowned the excitement to a synthesis of mush, howl and boom. I’ve always believed that, as beautiful a setting as it is, Hagia Eirene only allows certain pieces of music to sound good. The brass sections always sound problematic here. They bellow high above all other timbres, and orchestra hits end up as sustained two-and-a-half full note chords. Despite these setbacks, Mr. Mansur kept his orchestra in total concentration. I would also like to make a special mention of Mr. Hakan Sensoy, the principal violinist, for giving out timely cues.

Tonight, Ruins of Athens could just as well have been the overture to Beethoven’s 4th piano concerto that we were about to hear from Stephen Kovacevich (whose Beethoven recordings were my very first, and thus influential in shaping my conception of this great composer). The pianist appeared on stage in black trousers and a long black linen shirt, the tail of which he amusingly threw over the back of his stool as if it were a long tailcoat.

Beethoven wrote the G-Major concerto during one of the most innovative periods of his life: the sketches for the 5th symphony were already on paper (whose three short – one long note theme is actually echoed here in the first movement), and he was working on the Appassionata sonata simultaneously. Starting off a concerto with the solo instrument was virtually unheard of at the time. The short prologue by piano chords that set the main theme leaves an open question that is expanded and explored by a prolonged period of tutti – until the piano comes in again. Introducing the piano in the first few bars, but then keeping it out of sight, triggers a longing in the audience. This effect was felt even more than usual this evening after we had been teased by Mr. Kovacevich’s pearly tone. We were eager (to the point of being restless) for it to return soon. And when it did return, it did so in the shape of placidly played octaves underlining the main theme, continuing with subdued trills & runs, and I immediately knew we were about to hear the Eusebius in Beethoven – a rare, but when executed well, very effective reading.

I liken Beethoven’s 4th piano concerto to his 7th symphony. Neither are as bombastic as preceding works (the 3rd concerto and the 6th symphony), nor as majestic as subsequent ones (the 5th concerto and the 9th symphony). These two are smaller in scale and take longer to appreciate. They are intimate works that are better served when performers stop being ‘Florestan’ all the time. Mr. Kovacevich paid attention to the ‘Eusebius’ side of Beethoven and delivered a pensive and temperate rendition of the great concerto. By keeping the tone of his piano down most of the time, he disjointed disengaged himself from the flawed acoustics of the hall. The pianist was clearly in command of the music, but his power and assertiveness were not exerted by loudness. Throughout the movement, Mr. Mansur heeded to the soloist’s impulses when they were playing together, but when left to his own devices he wasn’t shy to bring in some fireworks. The second movement was another testament to the pianist’s soft touch commanding the orchestra. Strings, when they act alone, and provided they play sustained chords, sound particularly good in this hall. Kovacevich’s rounded tone together with the unisono strings that the music calls for played out marvellously. The third movement, however, suffered from bad acoustics once again. This rhythmically precise movement sounded as if there were a synching problem in the orchestra. Watching the ensemble ensured me that they were fine tuned, but there was a general feeling of the brass and timpani running a little behind the strings and the piano. The placement of horns and percussions right under the huge dome of the museum could have caused their resonance to take a while in reaching the audience, which may have been the reason for this illusion. Mr. Kovacevich, on the other hand, while very energetic, kept his poetic tone throughout the rondo and his down to earth stance managed to keep the final movement in place. In retrospect, this was one of the most graceful readings of the concerto I have ever heard. Mr. Kovacevich was not let go easily, and he played an Op. 126 bagatelle as an encore.

The second half of the evening kicked-off with the world premiere of a commissioned work: Ilhan Usmanbas’ new piece with the simple title ‘concerto’, with the influential Turkish composer in attendance. It is not clear if there is a specific instrument which the title addresses here, but if I had to make a guess, I’d go with the harp. The work can be characterized by a three-note phrase delivered in turn by strings, woodwinds and brass in the shape of sudden and powerful stabs. The harp comes in interludes, and it softens the spectrum, but by virtue of its timbre only. I found the piece to be enjoyable, albeit a bit limited in imagination. Severity was obviously what Mr. Usmanbas was aiming for here, and if that is indeed the case, we can easily conclude that the piece serves this purpose well. However, it is very tricky to try to comprehend a musical piece – particularly if it is modern – at its first hearing. I would have appreciated it if an introduction, however brief, had been given to the audience beforehand. Ilhan Usmanbas uses a variety of modern composing techniques and there is no way of knowing, whether, for example, there were any aleatoric elements (he’s reportedly fond of using them) in his piece – which would put the work in a completely different light.

Coriglioni’s Voyage was aptly (for obvious acoustic reasons) presented in its string orchestra version. Akbank Chamber Orchestra’s string section is highly skilled in creating lush, ambient sounds (which was, again, exhibited in the forthcoming Liszt pieces). Voyage is intended to evoke feelings of ‘grace and measure, richness, quietness and pleasure’ (in the words of its author, Baudelaire). The orchestra delivered all those qualities under Mr. Mansur’s opulent direction.

It’s the year 2011, for those who are not aware, and this year no concert program is complete without the inclusion of at least some Liszt. The next two pieces, works from the composer’s Années de Pèlerinage, were originally written for different instruments, but their string orchestra reincarnations work just fine. The orchestra was once again in top shape during these miniature works. Akbank CO delivered the brooding character of the music perfectly – thanks to the refined balance of bass and treble sounds filling the auditorium. For the final piece of the evening, La Lugubre Gondola, the rest of the orchestra was invited in to realize John Adams’ transcription of Liszt for chamber orchestra. Adams’ version is much more rhythmic and exhilarating than Liszt’s ominous original. The music’s dark tone was still there, but it was more macabre than morbid under a relentless cello and bass groundwork topped with energetic violins, violas and occasional brass and timpani.

Mr. Mansur, graciously, did not want to leave his audience all doom-and-gloomy, and ended the evening with a sanguine encore: Azarashvili’s charming Nocturne.

Alain Matalon