Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Scheherazade, op.35 (1888) [47:54]
Mily BALAKIREV (1837-1910)
Islamey – oriental fantasy, op.18 (1869) [8:54]
Mikhail IPPOLITOV-IVANOV (1859-1935)
Caucasian sketches suite no.1 – sketches 2 and 4 (1894) [10:12]
Ulvi Cemal ERKIN (1906-1972)
Köçekçe – dance rhapsody for orchestra (1943) [9:47]
Pelin Halkaci Akin (violin)
Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra/Sascha Goetzel
rec. Istinye, Istanbul, 11-15 February 2014
ONYX 4124 [77:13]

For those unfamiliar with BIFO - an acronym derived from its Turkish initial letters - this is an orchestra that was established less than twenty years ago to promote classical music to Turkish audiences. Anyone who has visited the city of Istanbul and seen how enthusiastically its citizens embrace many western values will have more than an inkling of why such an enterprise has been, it appears, something of a success.

This is BIFO's third release on Onyx. Its two predecessors showcased repertoire that avoided the mainstream and instead allowed the Turkish players' to demonstrate their eclecticism and spirit of adventure. The first (Onyx 4048) featured music by Respighi, Hindemith and Schmitt. The second (Onyx 4086) brought together works by the not altogether obvious grouping of Bartók, Holst, Prokofiev, Ravel and Schulhoff under the portmanteau title Music from the machine age. Both releases were very well recorded and this well-filled third disc maintains their high technical standards. The newcomer enters, however, a far more familiar and competitive field by offering Rimsky-Korsakov's ever-popular Scheherazade as its main attraction. That is backed up by a couple of other pieces of 19th century Russian pseudo-exotica and one novelty - a foot-tappingly atmospheric and attractively enjoyable "dance rhapsody" by the pioneering 20th century Turkish symphonist Ulvi Cemal Erkin. In many ways, the consistently high standard of performance confirms the positive points made about those generally well-received earlier releases. That said, in this more popular repertoire, the Istanbul players are competing with many of the world's finest orchestras and conductors.

Anyone who decides to buy this disc on the basis of its packaging, will have no reason to suspect that such a musical contest will be taking place on anything other than a level playing field. True enough, a brief note on the rear cover does drop a couple of hints of something a little out of the ordinary, with references to "music from different traditions - a multicultural mosaic ... [and] music of composers from different backgrounds with a similar [my own emphasis] musical language". It also mentions "identifying elements of the eastern side of the Bosphorus which have influenced the Western cultural background of most of these composers". That somewhat elliptical language rather naughtily fails to make clear that, in overtly capitalising on its "eastern" credentials, BIFO is entering the international competitive lists very much on its own terms. In so doing, it has created musical accounts that are, in some respects, utterly unique. That issue must be addressed first of all.

The disc kicks off with a performance of Scheherazade in which Rimsky-Korsakov’s justly feted and already colourful orchestration is augmented by the addition of a variety of exotic instruments. They include not only "oriental triangles and cymbals" but also, so we learn, the darbuka, the def, the bendir and the kudüm. Even more idiosyncratically, the harp that's traditionally deployed to support the solo violin "voice" of the story-telling heroine is jettisoned in favour of a qanun. Quite apart from novel orchestration, some new music is also saddled on to Rimsky's ageing but still very sprightly warhorse. An oud plays 45 seconds of what conductor Sascha Goetzel's booklet notes assure us is a traditional melody to link together the first and second movements, while the aforementioned qanun subsequently returns to perform a new episode of 15 seconds duration between movements III and IV.

As one who shamefacedly admits that he doesn't know a darbuka from a donner kebab, I merely report that the booklet notes imply - by making no specific mention to the contrary - that Balakirev's Islamey has been left untouched. The two extracts from Ippolitov-Ivanov's Caucasian sketches that follow are, however, certainly not something you'll have heard done this way before: a zurna replaces the cor anglais in In a village, while "many traditional percussion instruments including piccolo tympani" pop up, we are informed, in that old Housewives' choice favourite Procession of the sardar.

Is all this tinkering simply a cynical marketing gimmick from those A&R chaps at Onyx? Apparently not, for Mr Goetzel's own notes mount something of an artistic defence for it. Much of his argument, however, depends on little more than second-guessing what just might have been in the various composers' minds more than a century ago. "[We] have created a musical language", he writes, "which I think is closer to the original sound that the composers had in mind [my own emphasis] when writing their music for Western-style orchestras". As Evelyn Waugh would have put it: "Hmmm, up to a point, Lord Copper..."

Similarly, the insertion of the episode for the oud between movements I and II of Scheherazade is justified as "setting the atmosphere and recalling the magic and drama of the Tales of 1001 Nights". Well, excuse me for just a moment, but isn't that exactly what Rimsky-Korsakov's original score has been doing successfully - and without any help from anyone else at all - for no less than the past 46,000 or so nights?

Moving along to the other changes in scoring, the argument advanced for applying them to Ippolitov-Ivanov's In the village merits quoting in full: "The original orchestration asks for the cor anglais to play an exotic tune in imitation of the native region's Zurna. We couldn't find a Zurna to match the tuning of a modern symphony orchestra, so we compromised with a Ney flute to represent a close original sound. There are different sizes of Ney flute for higher and lower registers; we chose a bigger flute to match the special tonal colour of the cor anglais". All that is certainly very interesting and enlightening - but, as that passage makes plain, we are expected here to make not just one, but several successive leaps of faith. Matching speculation for speculation, perhaps I could put forward the suggestion that the composer might actually have written the cor anglais into his orchestration because he simply liked its "special tonal colour", rather than because he assumed that orchestras wouldn't have a zurna to hand - or even, for that matter, a ney.
Such fanciful and entirely speculative assertions that the composers would surely have utilised eastern instruments if they'd been more widely available - or that they would have adopted a different musical language for their "eastern" compositions if they hadn't been writing for "western" symphony orchestras - are less than convincing. It would surely have been better to present these perfectly legitimate 21st century re-workings as bold, positive and modern experiments that seek to re-imagine the scores from a specifically and genuinely "eastern" perspective. As it is, the specious justifications that we are offered instead leave an ordinary listener like me wondering what exactly we are supposed to be listening to - and what its relationship to the traditional performance tradition actually is.

Perceptive readers will have noted that everything I have written so far is based solely on the underlying thinking behind this release, rather than on the performances themselves. For some, my comments may have already ruled the disc out of court before they have heard even a note of the performances. In all fairness, this issue like any other merits a critical assessment of its musicianship and technical quality, even if, for reasons already explained, comparison with other accounts has been rendered problematic, if not impossible.

The first point to make is that BIFO under its artistic director and principal conductor Mr Goetzel is clearly a fine orchestra. It certainly deserves to be better known - a deficiency that its high-profile debut performance at this year's Proms is presumably intended to redress. The brass take the fullest advantage of Scheherazade's opportunities and make, unsurprisingly, the most telling immediate impact from the work's grandly declamatory opening phrases onwards. The orchestra's characterful string and woodwind players certainly make a strong impression too. In general, the orchestra can be said to possess a weighty but mellow and silkenly homogenous tone.

Entirely admirable though those characteristics are, they are not necessarily enough to make an orchestra stand out from the crowd. That is well evidenced, for instance, in Islamey where, compared to my benchmark recording, a strikingly incisive Technicolor account from the USSR Symphony Orchestra under Evgeny Svetlanov (BMG/Melodiya 74321 49608 2) that buzzes through its opening allegro agitato like a very angry bee, the Istanbul players are, while entirely musical, rather penny plain. In much the same way, their performance of The procession of the sardar fails, to my ears, to make the impact achieved by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine under Arthur Fagen (Naxos 8.553405). In taking a full minute longer (4:50 as opposed to the BIFO players' 3:50), Mr Fagen makes the music far more sinuous and - what, to western ears, at least sounds - "exotic". To return briefly to my earlier musings, perhaps the BIFO performance is making the point that genuinely "eastern" music needn't exhibit the clichés that Ippolitov-Ivanov and others have attached to it. That said, one could respond to that by observing that those composers weren't actually seeking to write authentic oriental scores in the first place, merely ones that conformed to what western audiences of their time thought such music ought to sound like.

As I've pointed out that BIFO's sound is consistent with that of many other orchestras, you may now be wondering what impact if any was made by the bendir, the qanun and all the rest. In most cases it turns out to be not as much as you might have expected, presumably because those instruments were never designed to be played in conjunction with the full resources of a modern symphony orchestra. It isn't surprising, for example, that a traditional qanun cannot equal the volume generated by a modern concert harp that’s been designed to fill a large auditorium with its sound. As a result, it struggles to make the same impact when accompanying Scheherazade's solo violinist - an accomplished player, by the way, who suffers the indignity of having her name misspelled at least twice on the packaging. I actually found that it was necessary to turn the volume up at that point - and then reduce it subsequently - in order to appreciate the qanun's distinctive sound at all. In a similar manner, the "oriental triangles and cymbals" that feature in the same work may easily pass you by unless you are really straining your ears to catch them. In such ways the disc highlights the mismatch between, on the one hand, traditional folk instruments that are more effectively heard solo or in small ensembles and, on the other, the western symphony orchestra at full throttle and in its plushest late 19th century mode.

This is, then, a release that falls somewhat between two stools. On paper the modifications to the traditional scores' orchestration and the addition of those new linking passages appear so substantial that some potential buyers may be alienated from even considering a purchase. On the other hand, those changes, while certainly novel and interesting in themselves, will for others be insufficiently radical in practice either to justify the claims made for them or to render the revised versions of much real interest.

One final observation ... If, like me, you want to discover more about this accomplished and interesting orchestra, you may well choose to consult, among other resources, BIFO’s entry on the Wikipedia website. Should you do so, you will find that it is headed by a warning that someone has posted to the effect that "This page has some issues". So too, it might equally be said to anyone looking for a more mainstream approach to this music, has this new release.

Rob Maynard

Masterwork Index: Scheherazade


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