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Can ATILLA (b.1969)
Symphony No.2 ‘Gallipoli – The 57th Regiment’
Onur Şenier (cello), Angela Ahiskal (soprano)
The Bilkent Symphony Orchestra/Burak Tüzün
NAXOS 8.579009 [54.46]

Until I caught sight of this CD, the only Atilla I had heard of was a Hunnic war-lord whose activities contributed to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire in the mid fifth century. However, it would appear that it is quite a common male first name in modern Turkey.

The Turkish composer Can Atilla has composed a symphony in commemoration of the Battle of Gallipoli. The Gallipoli campaign lasted eight months in 1915-16, with huge casualties suffered by the Ottoman Empire and its invaders, the Allies – Russia, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and France. The Ottomans repelled the invading forces, and the entire campaign is regarded by Turkey as being one of the defining moments in its history, as the Ottoman Empire crumbled.

Atilla composed music for a very successful film about the campaign and ideas for this symphony came about as a result.

As the booklet notes say, it is a commemoration for all soldiers who fell at that time. In four movements, it is unusual in that the first two comprise a sinfonia concertante for cello and orchestra and the last two are, in part, vocal with a coloratura soprano singing verses by Kemal Attatürk – the founder of modern Turkey – which are a lament for the fallen Anzac soldiers and also verses by the Australian poet John Le Gay Brereton.

The symphony is wholly tonal and as the booklet informs us is much influenced by music of the late romantic period. The seventeen minute first movement is quite striking in its dramatic introduction, a demonstrative drum roll and makes no bones about appealing to feelings induced by war, whether bravery, sentiment or sorrow. The movement essentially consists of two themes, a lyrical one that appears first followed by a march-like idea. The first is supposed to represent the horror of battle and the second bravery and victory. I am not so sure that either achieve their intended effect – the first easily becomes so lyrical, albeit sad, that horror is not conveyed to my ears, and the second is far too jaunty. The cello takes over both themes and they become intertwined and developed. Later the cello is intended to represent the feelings of a particular Turkish Commander who saw an entire regiment – named in this symphonies title - wiped out. The movement end with another dramatic drum roll. The orchestral passages tend to put me mind of Gliere and the cello writing, Miaskovsky. Famous ‘war’ symphonies, such as those by Shostakovich are grimmer and more strident than this, but the music is enjoyable nonetheless, although I could have done with less of the march theme.

In the second movement the cello tells the story of the soldiers’ yearnings and their love letters whilst the orchestra expresses the brutal reality of battle – or so I am told by the notes. In actuality we are presented with a highly romantic, flowing piece for cello and orchestra which could almost have been by Rachmaninov were it a bit more inventive. It has one major and several minor climaxes, at least three of which are spoiled by the presence of a cymbal clash – very filmic. I would never have guessed that anything here was ‘expressing the brutal reality of war’, but it is enjoyable as a short piece (14 minutes) for cello and orchestra.

The third movement is headed ‘Marcia funebre – Andante angoscioso’ and I cannot for the life of me hear a funeral march in it. It consists of a high soprano singing words written by Atatürk which commemorate the Anzac soldiers who fell fighting his countrymen. I don’t think that the setting comes across as ‘anguished’, but it is slow and suitably commemorative in tone. The soprano’s diction is often unclear even though she sings in English.

The last movement opens with rather grave music which is soon interrupted by the cello and soprano, in duet, symbolising the “brotherhood between Turkish and Anzac soldiers in their shared fate”. Perhaps the need for the voice to be differentiated from the tones of the cello is the reason behind the very high vocal writing. The music moves on to a climax, once again topped by an all too predictable cymbal crash. A vigorous furioso theme then takes over representing the calamities of battle. Finally, the soprano sings, bringing the work to an end, with the orchestra having the last quiet word. As I mentioned earlier, words by an Australian poet feature in this movement with the soprano mostly singing towards the top of her tessitura. I found her high, bright voice a little tiring and, understandably, it is often difficult to make out her words as the voice moves upwards.

All in all, I enjoyed this piece. Its intent, to remember the sacrifices of war on both sides of a terrible campaign, is admirable but as far as the horrors are concerned, I don’t think that it really gets there. Perhaps I am too inculcated with the type of music Shostakovich wrote to be impressed with flowing tunes and folk-like marches.

With just a momentary lack of co-ordination audible in the strings, the orchestra play well. The recording is good and the booklet notes are excellent.

Jim Westhead

Previous review: Brian Wilson



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