Sunday 4 September 2016

Theodore Kuchar and the Istanbul State Symphony Orchestra together with violinist James Buswell provide idiomatic performances of works by Turkish composer Ulvi Cemal Erkin on a new release from Naxos

The Turkish composer Ulvi Cemal Erkin (1906-1972) grew up with music around him, his mother played the piano and his brother the violin. He studied at Galatasaray Lycée in Istanbul and the piano with foreign tutors. He received a scholarship to attend the Paris Conservatoire where he studied piano with Isidor Philipp and Camille Decreus, harmony with Jean Gallon and counterpoint with Noel Gallon. After entering the École Normale de Musique at the end of the 1920s he took composition lessons from Nadia Boulanger.

Returning to Turkey in 1930, Erkin began work as a teacher of piano and harmony at the Musiki Muallim Mektebi in Ankara, the capital city of the Turkish Republic. This school, which had been established a short while earlier with the purpose of training music teachers, was to become the Ankara State Conservatoire a few years later. He was director of the school from 1949 to 1951 and continued to work there without a break, training young Turkish musicians, until his death in 1972.

Erkin was part of a group of composer including Ahmed Adnan Saygun (1907-1991), Cemal Reşit Rey (1904-1985), Hasan Ferdi Alnar (1906-1978) and Necil Kazım Akses (1908-1999) who were known as the ‘Turkish Five’, combining traditional Turkish elements with European contemporary classical traditions.

Naxos have just released a recording of Erkin’s Symphony No. 2 and Violin Concerto coupled with his Dance Rhapsody for Orchestra, Köçekçe with the Istanbul State Symphony Orchestra  conducted by Theodore Kuchar  with violinist James Buswell


Perhaps Erkin’s best known work is his Köçekçe – Dance Rhapsody for Orchestra (1943). It was premiered by the Presidential Orchestra conducted by Ernst Praetorius in 1943. It has an energetic, frenetic opening with a distinctive eastern flavour, particularly when the woodwind arrive to weave the melody through the strings. Theodore Kuchar draws strong contrasts between the various passages, at times poetic, at others more dramatic. This is a real show piece for orchestra, full of eastern flavour, revealing razor sharp reactions from the orchestra to the many dynamic changes.
The Violin Concerto (1946-47) was first performed in 1949 at the opening of the Ankara Opera House with the Presidential Orchestra conducted by the composer and the Hungarian violinist, Licco Amar (1891-1959) as soloist. A timpani roll opens the Allegro giusto quickly followed by the soloist and orchestra in an earnest theme that is developed in a series of rising scales before leading to an expansive orchestral section. The music falls as the soloist re-enters with Erkin developing some fine ideas, never overtly Turkish or eastern. There is a lovely dialogue between oboe and violin solo with often an underlying feeling of drama and tension. James Buswell provides a virtuosic solo part through the movement’s varying moods, building through some dramatically intense passages for soloist and orchestra to an extended cadenza where Buswell brings some terrific, virtuosic playing. The orchestra rejoin to help drive the music forward. There is a quiet passage for orchestra to which the soloist brings a passionate edge as well as hints of subtler Turkish influences before a weighty, decisive coda.

In the Adagio the strings bring a steady, thoughtful theme underpinned by pizzicato basses to which woodwind join creating a feeling of nostalgia, even sadness. The soloist enters to weave the melancholy theme through the orchestra, developing some fine dissonances for the violin with some lovely textures. The theme is taken through some fine passages, always retaining an underlying steady pulse with Buswell finding some lovely textures and sonorities.

The Allegro con fuoco brings an intense, fast moving theme that soon develops a more overt Turkish flavour. The soloist weaves the theme around the orchestra, finding much passion, a terrific fusion of western classical tradition with Turkish traditions. Buswell again finds many fine timbres and textures as he weaves and develops the melody. There are some particularly fine woodwind passages as well as a terrific forward pulse right through to the coda.

Though Erkin’s Symphony No. 2 (1948-58), his last symphony, was finished in 1951 it was not orchestrated until 1958. It was premiered in Munich in 1958 by the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Karl Öhring. In three movements, the Allegro non troppo brings a dancing Turkish inflected theme that bounds ahead with contrasting quieter passages. Soon a gentle idea for flute and oboe arrives over a hushed orchestra soon taken by muted brass creating a heavy atmosphere. Timpani soon herald a pounding, raucous section where the music strides purposefully, even angrily ahead. Erkin brings some lovely alternating quieter passages where woodwind weave some magical ideas. The music develops through some wonderfully dramatic passages with a forward surge, Kuchar and his Istanbul players finding a terrific ebb and flow as the drama increases only to pull back before leaping suddenly to a dynamic end.

The Adagio opens slowly in the basses as a theme is darkly worked out. Slowly instruments are added as the music subtly expands with a Turkish melody appearing. The music finds a sense of inexorable forward motion, percussion add to the increasing drama with the brass bringing even more intensity. Later there is a moment of peace as a melancholy passage arrives providing perhaps more a stasis than peace before gently moving to a hushed coda. This is a remarkable movement built from the simplest of ideas.

The Allegro - Alla Köçekçe leaps in with a strong repeated motif for strings, pointed up by brass that soon gives way to a quieter, lively woodwind melody. The repeated theme is developed dynamically with percussion pointing up the music. There is a faster passage where woodwind dance forward over a pizzicato string backdrop before timpani add a pounding accompaniment. The music travels through a series of variations on the theme with rhythmic ideas and quieter woodwind passages. There is an exquisite passage with arabesques for clarinet before the opening idea returns to drive furiously to the end.

As would be expected, Theodore Kuchar Kuchar draws thoroughly idiomatic performances from the Istanbul State Symphony Orchestra with some terrific playing from soloist James Buswell.  They receive a first rate recording made at the Fulya Cultural Centre, Istanbul, Turkey and there are excellent booklet notes that put the composer in the context of the musical and political developments in Turkey in Erkin’s time. 

This is a really worthwhile disc that will introduce this important Turkish composer to a wider audience.

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