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Turkish Piano Trios
Hasan Ferid ALNAR (1906-1978)
Piano Trio (1966) [19:46]
Ferit TÜZÜN (1920-1977)
Piano Trio (1950) [6:32]*
İlhan BARAN (1934-2016)
Dönüşümler (‘Transformations’) (1975) [19:43]
Oğuzhan BALCI (b. 1977)
Piano Trio No. 1 (2019) [22:42]*
Bosphorus Trio
rec. August 2019 Bursa Uludağ University State Conservatory Hall, Turkey
* World Première Recording
NAXOS 8.579071 [68:53]

As a pianist, the piano trio is one of my favourite genres, and it’s always very rewarding to get to hear some new examples. More often than not, this involves works from unfamiliar composers, or those from composers better-known for their output in other areas. Less often will it feature piano trios by composers from a specific country, as happened when I had the pleasure of reviewing a selection of Portuguese Piano Trios in 2016, on the Naxos label.

When I recently saw that Naxos had just released the first in a series of piano trios by Turkish composers, I was especially keen to hear it, partly because I’m not overly conversant with Turkish music, but moreover because of its geographical position located mainly in Western Asia, with a smaller portion in South-Eastern Europe, a duality which I hoped would also be reflected in its music.

Naxos informs us that this new release features the music of three generations of composers, whose music ‘combines traditional rhythms, and modalities with Western classical sonorities’. The first piano trio on the CD was written in 1966 by Hasan Ferid Alnar, who was one of the ‘Turkish Five’ collective of composers. Most of us are already probably familiar with ‘Les Six’ in France, the ‘Grupo de los Cuatro’ (Mexico) and the Russian ‘Five’. The ‘Turkish Five’ were all born in the first decade of the twentieth century and composed their best music in the early years of the Republic of Turkey, especially during the presidencies of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and İsmet İnönü. They all shared contacts with the two presidents and were highly encouraged as such, both on a personal level and also through the general drive towards westernization in Turkey.

Alnar initially studied architecture, then left for Vienna to further his musical studies with composer, Joseph Marx. As a boy, Alnar had become a virtuoso on the zither-like kanun or quanun, composing the first-ever concerto for the instrument (1944-51). But it was really an early fascination by Turkey’s traditional makam music that initially led him in this direction.

Makam is a system of melody-types used both in Turkish classical, and folk music, which provides a complex set of rules for composing and performance. Specifically, each makam specifies a unique intervallic structure, and melodic development, which the music then attempts to follow closely. In Indian classical music, the melodic equivalent would be the raga, while the rhythmic counterpart would be the tala – or usul in Turkish parlance.

Alnar’s Piano Trio is a four-movement work, which, according to the informative sleeve notes, started life in 1929, as the Trio Fantasia, before being recast in its present form over 30 years later. Simply put, the opening Poco lento – Allegro moderato makes significant use of monophonic textures (unaccompanied single-line melodies) based on a number of different makams, or scale-patterns, which can be heard at the start, on the violin, before the other instruments join in. Another recurring feature is the use of phrasal interplay between the piano in octaves, and the two strings at the same interval. In fact, when not involved in chordal harmony, which often involves the interval of a fourth, the piano gets a good deal of mileage out of passages, one, or two octaves apart. The movement closes unexpectedly, with a loud chord, by way of a decisive ‘coup de grâce’.

The second movement – effectively a Scherzo – is a most effective piece of writing, a rhythmically-engaging dance where again the piano is heard frequently in octaves, and the call and response nature of the previous movement carries over here. The movement is marked Sollerando, a word that would appear to be Italian, rather than Turkish in origin. Unfortunately, though, the word doesn’t actually exist, so, never liking to be beaten, I made contact with the Bosphorus Trio, who were already aware of the error, and they very kindly explained what had happened. Apparently the work is unpublished, and the players were using a score produced via third-party music-notation software. The actual handwriting on the original manuscript was virtually impossible to decipher, but the word looked like sollerando, and, as such, was despatched to Naxos in readiness for the CD release. Since then, the players had got to the bottom of it, and concluded that the exotic-sounding sollerando was nothing more sinister than the common-or-garden scherzando – hardly surprising for this most enjoyable little Scherzo movement.

No such anomalies, though, with the third movement marked Lento. This is the slow movement, and the longest of the four. Again it opens with a somewhat morose makam intoned initially in octaves in the lower register of the piano, before being joined by cello and violin, to create an intricate web of melodies, and some lush and poignant harmonies. As the music moves towards a more passionate climax, it seems to assume a more mainstream European personality, before coming to rest virtually in diatonic harmony – a movement of true repose and almost religious-like solemnity. The finale opens with a short, almost improvisatory recitative section, (Moderato), which soon leads to the march-like main section (Alla Marcia). While all the musical structures from the previous movements reappear here, there is greater virtuosity for the piano, and prominence for the cello, and a certain dash of Prokofiev and Shostakovich in the course of the writing. Once more, taking his lead from the first movement, Alnar ensures the dénouement is decidedly short, sweet – and most effective.  

The next Trio is by Ferit Tüzün, who became one of the best-known conductors, and composers of modern Turkish music of his generation. His Piano Trio (1950) which dates back to his student days in Ankara is in one single movement and is just some six-and-a-half minutes in length. There is one immediate similarity with Alnar’s writing at the outset, where the piano plays two octaves apart, but on this occasion over a busy pizzicato from the strings. However, this makam-inspired piano melody quickly mutates, after just twenty seconds, into something much lusher and richly harmonic, which, on the one hand, sounds quite out of kilter with the continuing string pizzicati, while bizarrely functioning as a perfect soul-mate. The piano-writing continues to build in excitement, until the roles appear reversed, with strings taking over the octave melody, and the piano playing staccato. There is far greater virtuosity and panache here in the piano-writing, which is really exhilarating to listen to, even if any true Turkish ‘feel’ has temporarily been relegated more to the background. When the strings do return, apart from a really vibrant rhythmic element, harmonically-speaking, we’re still not quite back where we started. Some five minutes into the movement everything leads to a climax, after which the Turkish ‘feel’ returns to the strings, with the piano supporting underneath. The tempo then slows somewhat for a brief, more expansive moment, before things pick up as before, until a final recap of the main theme, leaving a single chord of A major to conclude what has certainly been a highly-entertaining six minutes or so, even if perhaps more reliant on Western influences than its predecessor.

İlhan Baran is one of the third-generation of Turkish composers and teachers, and again his music presents elements of folk music, with its traditional makams. His Dönüşümler (Transformations’) (1975) consists of a mystical fantasia theme, followed by eight transformations, which he describes as ‘a kind of atmospheric state of mind. For the first minute or so, the strings remain silent, before joining the piano for the somewhat doleful theme, which seems devoid of anything specifically ethnic. The sleeve-note informs us that the first transformation is a horon – a colourful folk dance from the Black Sea region which makes effective use of pulsating syncopated rhythms, and some string effects. The second transformation is much calmer and far more lyrical by nature, and leads straight into the third transformation, which depicts another dance, the zeybek, originating from the Anatolian peninsula. This starts gently, with some effective use of pizzicato, before building towards an intense climax, one of this dance’s heroic characteristics. Momentum is continued in the next transformation – a powerful movement in 9/8, where the cello is omitted. Lyricism returns in the next transformation, but is quickly brushed aside by another highly-charged, impetuous, and virtuosic horon. The seventh transformation explores another facet of Turkish folk music – the uzun hava, or ‘long air’, when applied to the voice. The final transformation recalls the original fantasia, which, after a most impressive and eminently powerful climax, simply fades away into the aether at its close.

The CD closes with the Piano Trio No 1 (2019) by Oğuzhan Balci, and was commissioned by the Bosphorus Trio, to whom the composer has dedicated one each of the three movements – Sunrise Red for violinist Özgecan Günöz, Pure Water for cellist Çağlayan Çetin, and The Mare for pianist Özgür Ünaldı.

Sunrise Red opens with a violin solo, and evokes a calm atmosphere of mainly tonal harmonies. Just before two minutes have elapsed, the tempo quickens, as does the musical pace, which here takes on a much more astringent quality, propelled by what could be likened to a persistent, syncopated dance-pattern. The pulse races and at this point the writing takes on a more Turkish attribute, and where, as we have seen before, the piano makes much use of exotic scale-patterns in octaves. At just around three minutes, there’s a cheerful little section which rhythmically conjures up the kind of mock Turkish-dancing hand-moves we’re more familiar with from watching pantomimes. The writing then becomes initially more expansive, with an almost Piazzolla-like tango-feel, before building in excitement to an abrupt, yet effective close.

Pure Water, the longest of the three movements, is, according to the composer, who has written his own sleeve-notes, ‘relatively stationary and tranquil in expression’. He goes on to explain what he is seeking to express in this extended slow movement. The piano mainly provides what could be interpreted as a heart-beat, which then provides a pulse over which the strings weave their individual lines, while the music builds towards a climax, some three minutes before the end. From this point it subsides, retracing its original journey, eventually expiring quasi niente, followed by what seems like quite a prolonged silence on the disc.

Balci’s Trio concludes with The Mare – this time the shortest movement of the three. Clearly we’re talking race-horses here, as the piano is straight out of the starting gate with a busy, impetuous passage in octaves, soon joined by the strings, whose main responsibility is to sing out the calm and basically uncluttered theme, over the continuous arpeggio-accompaniment from the piano. Around two-and-a-half minutes in, the piano is given a really jaunty little theme that, oddly, wouldn’t appear out of place in a Wild-West saloon, albeit as part of some distorted nightmare. The opening section is revisited, which then forms part of the run-in to the highly-effective and virtuosic close of this overall extremely effective work for the genre. By way of a purely personal observation, I feel that some judicious pruning of the second movement (Pure Water) would have enhanced the impact of Balci’s Piano Trio overall, since it just tends to lose a little of its momentum and direction at this point.

So far I have said nothing about the contribution from the young Turkish players of the Bosphorus Piano Trio, founded some four years earlier. For me they absolutely make this CD as enjoyable and entertaining as it is, while at the same time, providing a real insight into some characteristics of Turkish Music. Clearly the string players have an innate ability to play their instruments in ‘Turkish’ style, when required, and to do this seamlessly whenever the musical satellite crosses over from Asia to Europe and back. I am equally relieved that, especially in the newest work recorded, it was felt unnecessary to ‘prepare’ the piano in any way, in an attempt to simulate the unique sound of the zither-like kanun for a more ‘ethnic’ effect, somewhat à la John Cage.

Each player is a truly-accomplished musician in their own right, and the Bosphorus Trio has made the conscious decision to continue to go forward as a group, which is really good news in these increasingly challenging times. The recording and presentation are excellent, too, and this debut CD should appeal on so many different levels to any potential listener. Factoring in its pure entertainment value, I would definitely commend this piece of ‘Turkish Delight’, which is certainly well worth sampling, whatever your musical palate – or just how much of a sweet tooth you might have.

Philip R Buttall

Özgecan Günöz (violin); Çağlayan Çetin (cello); Özgür Ünaldı (piano)

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