Erkin’s Little-Known Music a Wow

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ERKİN: Köçekçe, Dance Rhapsody for Orchestra; Violin Concerto; Symphony No. 2 / James Buswell, violinist (in concerto); Istanbul State Symphony Orchestra; Theodore Kuchar, conductor / Naxos 8.572831

Despite the fact that Turkey was one of the very few Middle Eastern countries to embrace Western culture, particularly its musical culture, during the 1920s, we here in the West still have a fairly sketchy view of their composers’ output. We know of Fazil Say because he is young and contemporary, and we now know quite a bit of Ahmed Saygun because he has been a cause celebre among classical critics in recent years, yet I doubt that most lay listeners and even the majority of music critics have heard the music of the “Turkish Five.” This group includes Saygun and Ulvi Cemal Erkin but also Cemal Reşit Rey, Hasan Ferdi Alnar and Necil Kazim Akses—and if you say that you’re familiar with the works of these composers (other than Saygun) you’re either Turkish, a musicologist who specializes in Eastern composers, or a liar.

Thus this new release of Erkin’s music as conducted by the exciting and scintillating Theodor Kuchar is not only a valuable addition to a catalog sadly lacking his music: the only other release I could find was an alternate performance of Köçekçe, his most famous and popular piece, on an Onyx CD mixed in with the music of Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov and Ippolitov-Ivanov. In a sense, then, one might almost consider this the Western debut of this superb and interesting composer.

Although he had a long career after studying with Nadia Boulanger in the mid-to-late 1920s, all three of the works presented here date from the middle 1940s—apparently a fertile period for him. The informative but somewhat convoluted liner notes by Aydin Büke tell us that Erkin borrowed national folk tunes for his music (scarcely surprising—so did Saygun, and I’ll bet the other members of the Turkish Five did the same) and What I find particularly interesting is that the principal Turkish dance used by Erkin as a basis for his music, the köçek, is performed by a male dancer in women’s clothing, “an important component of Turkish national life.” So there you are. Transvestism dates further back than you thought. I wonder if köçek dancers were stoned or pushed off cliffs if they performed in less tolerant Middle Eastern countries?

The notes also delve into the components that made up Erkin’s music, as well as that of other members of the Turkish Five. Among these were advanced harmonies and an almost Stravinskian approach to melodic structure. The results are fascinating, combining these then-modern elements of neo-classicism with the retro sound of old Turkish folk music and a modal structure. In a way, then, Erkin’s music may be described as a combination of native folk tunes with not only Stravinsky but also Bartók with late Romantic tendencies (e.g., Strauss), but this simplistic description is not wholly adequate in defining this music’s originality and power. Köçekçe, his most famous and popular piece, is a real butt-kicker in D minor or D modal, beginning with startling brass chords playing against swirling strings before forlorn winds are heard playing an interlude. But the brash orchestration and spiraling rhythms are what dominate this work without ever being as crass in their use as, say, Kabalevsky’s Colas Breugnon Overture. Erkin worked within established forms but pushed the limits of rhythm, and displacement of beats, in a strikingly Turkish manner. A couple of flute (or piccolos—I haven’t seen the score) also come in for their own theme, which Erkin then builds up to an impressive climax with the winds and brass again at the fore. It’s one of those pieces that keep you on the edge of your seat because you never know what’s going to come next. Even the coda, such as it is, comes as a surprise with its somewhat Sephardic harmonic feel.

The Violin Concerto of 1946-47 is set in three movements as per Western tradition, but the music relies heavily on modality (the initial movement begins in A modal). And even here, Erkin displays his flair for the dramatic, starting the work with a rolling tympani crescendo and a crashing string/brass chord. The soloist immediately enters, playing the principal theme before moving on to virtuosic excursions. The orchestra, oddly, then takes up part of the development section, returning to the soloist for more placid commentary before ominous low brass growls and string tremolos create a feeling of unease beneath the soloist’s long-held high E. From this point on, for some time, both soloist and orchestra engage in alternating bits of the development section, the orchestra maintaining its dramatic feel while the violin comments more lyrically. I believe I heard bass clarinets around the 3:40 mark, certainly an unusual bit of orchestration for a classical work of this nature. At 4:50 dramatic, staccato orchestral chords come crashing into the picture, eventually returning us to the violin soloist, now in a more agitated state himself. I should point out that, although these works were new to me, I must compliment conductor Kuchar, whose set of the complete orchestral works of Smetana I praised highly several years ago, for maintaining such a high level of emotion even in the quietest passages. Staccato orchestral chords eventually return, this time with the violin playing agitated lines above them, including chords in triplets, before being let loose on a cadential phrase that acts more like a bridge to the rest of the movement. It’s difficult to put the impact of this music in words—that’s the reason it’s music and not a piece of prose—but one listen to it will convince you that Erkin had a wonderful sense of balance in his writing for both soloist and orchestra. Eventually the violin soloist embarks on a cadenza proper, but it sounds to me an integral part of the piece and important as a bridge to the dramatic closing music of this movement.

The second movement, more lyrical and placid, is also less complex in terms of contrasting sections and emotions but no less effective for that. The throbbing solo violin, here in a more reflective, almost melancholy mood, dominates the proceedings while the orchestra comes and goes in more muted colors. Drama is created at the midway point by stopped chords and a more forceful manner of playing before a return to hushed sadness. By contrast, the wild, almost savage last movement includes what is called a taksim section that simulates the feeling of improvisation often encountered in traditional Turkish violin music. Here, too, the constant and insistent motor rhythms utilized by Erkin set up an almost “whirling dervish” feel to the music, to which both the orchestra and soloist are up to the challenge.

The Second Symphony was started in 1948 and finished in 1951, but for whatever reason Erkin did not fully orchestrate it until 1958. Oddly, despite its brilliance in both compositional terms and color, it was the last symphony he wrote. Once again Erkin mixed a modal style (D-flat modal, in fact) with Western forms, his sense of the dramatic again coming to the fore. String tremolos and staccato horns are expertly used to build tension even in the quieter passages, and here Erkin did a splendid job of grading his dynamics from loud to soft and back again without relying solely on stark contrasts of volume. A stark flute melody acts as the B theme in the first movement, embellished by muted trumpets and what sounds to me like a horn-trombone mixture playing very low and soft chords as a sort of basso continuo for a period of time. Then, suddenly, at 3:35 the orchestra opens up into a snarling, growling, menacing force, coming at the listener with the power of a freight train (I was reminded a bit of “Mars” from Holst’s The Planets) before an oboe (or English horn) solo intervenes for a brief interlude amidst the clamor. This leads to other winds playing soft passages in an evident development section, yet with the full orchestra continually interrupting with its clamor until it again wrests control of the piece. The resemblance to Holst’s “Mars” continues apace with the staccato rhythms and forceful orchestration, at least until the 7:52 mark when the rolling tympani finally dies away and a more consistently lyrical interlude is established. The tympani returns, introducing the brief, dramatic finale.

The second movement is written as a theme with eight variations in the form of a passacaglia. I was fascinated to read Büke’s assertion, in the notes, that the opening theme played by the basses reminded him of “a prayer from a Mevlevi dervish ceremony,” so I’m not the only one who hears dervish allusions in these scores. Here, too, Erkin uses clarinets scored very low in their range but not (so far as I can tell) the bass clarinets he used earlier in the violin concerto. Despite this being a slow movement and in the form of a passacaglia, Erkin does not shy away from open and brash emotion, building the music up gradually from 2:15 through 6:14 (whence it abruptly stops) in a slow, inexorable crescendo to a stunning climax. Once again, one can scarcely give enough praise to Kuchar or the playing of the orchestra as they move together in unison to create a spellbinding effect. And once again, Erkin uses tympani to assist him in the creation and sustaining of that tension. The final section of the movement, dominated by the shrillness of a piccolo playing very high up in its range, takes us to a dark, quiet finish.

The last movement, another allegro in the manner of a Köçekçe, shows Erkin in yet another festive mood, here varying the beat within each bar even a bit more than in his “dance rhapsody.” And here another instrument is added to his arsenal for color, the xylophone, which plays a prominent part in sections. A sort of canon or fugue is set up after the initial theme, but it only lasts a short time before we return to rhythmic excitement. At the 2:50 mark, we suddenly begin a faster section played by the winds with brass interjections, again with a strong Sephardic feel to it.

It’s difficult to listen to this album without the sense that something momentous is going on and that we are privileged to discover it. Both Erkin as a composer and Kuchar as a conductor grab one’s attention from the very start and simply do not let go until the final notes have died away. This is a gem of an album, easily one of the best of 2016 so far. “Six fish,” says The Penguin’s Girlfriend!

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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