The Bosphorus Trio Goes Turkish!

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ALNAR: Piano Trio. TÜZÜN: Piano Trio. BARAN: Dönüşümler {Transformations). BALCI: Piano Trio No. 1 / Bosphorus Trio / Naxos 8.579071

This new CD features works by four Turkish composers previously unknown to me: Hasan Alnar (1906-1978), Ferit Tüzün (1929-1977), Ìlhan Baran (1934-2016) and Oğuzhan Balci (b. 1977), played by the Turkish Bosphorus Trio. Needless to say, all are world premiere recordings.

The Alnar piece, though leaning towards late Romanticism, is informed with the harmonies of traditional makam music, which give it a very exotic flavor. Alnar was one of a group of composers known as “The Turkish Five” which also included Cernal Rey, Ulvi Erkin (who is better known than Alnar) and perhaps the most famous of them, Ahmet Adnan Saygun. After the slow opening, the first movement becomes rather lively, and Alnar, interestingly, treats the instruments of the trio as separate entities playing against one another like sections in an orchestra rather than combining their talents in a unified musical statement. Much of this movement is dominated by the violin and occasionally by the cello; even rarer are those moments where the two strings play together. The piano seems to act as commentator, playing its own very different music while the others go along their merry way, and this piano part is for the most part highly rhythmic with almost “jumpy” rhythms in rapid eighth-note passages and chords. Although the second movement, marked “Sollerando,” involves different thematic material, it follows the first almost without a break and almost sounds like an extension of the first. It’s very clear that Alnar was a fine composer, as his music had a good balance, although perhaps not the most inspired composer. The slow third movement is the longest at 7:06 but also the most conventional and least interesting. The last movement is dance-like but, again, not terribly interesting.

By contrast, Tüzün’s piano trio is a very terse musical statement, being only 6:32 long. This is built around a sort of 6/8 (or perhaps 9/12) rhythm and, although Tüzün did not directly quote Turkish folk melodies, he alluded to them in his music. This trio is one of his earliest works, written when he was only 21 years old. The Bosphorus Trio gave its first performance in Turkey in 2018 after finding the manuscript score in the library of the Ankara State Opera and Ballet Orchestra in 2012. I liked it immensely: it has verve and a certain amount of originality, its bouncing rhythms provided by the piano keeping things moving.

Ílhan Baran, a pupil of Saygun, was a member of a later generation of Turkish composers and an important teacher as well. As annotator Gökçe Artar puts it, his music “often portrays abstract presentations of elements of folk and the traditional makam music of Turkey.” His Transformations, though in a single movement, is a very long piece…in fact, a few seconds longer than Alner’s entire four-movement Piano Trio and is in fact divided into discrete sections. It’s very difficult to describe the thematic material but easier to describe the harmonic base, which uses several different scales and modes including whole tones which constantly morph and change underneath the lively but simple top line. In one section, Baran sets up a pizzicato cello line that simulates a jazz bassist while the pianist sprinkles chords. The violin adds a few very soft pizzicato lines of its own after one chorus. Eventually the volume gradually increases and Baran creates an entirely new rhythm underneath different thematic material while keeping the lively rhythmic base going. Indeed, in most of this music, as is true in the music of Saygun and Erkin, you might use the old Jimmie Lunceford song title, “Rhythm is Our Business.”

We end with the piano trio by Balci, only 43 years old as of this writing, which was composed last year. Graduating at the top of his class, he too took up the study of Turkish music which he incorporates into his pieces. This trio, which was commissioned by the Bosphorus group, begins in a retro-Romantic style, again moving into rhythmic music with a Middle Eastern flavor as it evolves. It would be nice to say that Balci’s music shows great originality, but alas, my impression is that it borrows so much from the past that it sounds like the past. Not that it isn’t well composed, mind you, but it isn’t terribly original in concept or execution.

A fairly interesting CD, then, with some highlights and a few low lights.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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