A Strange Release from Gramola (I Think)

GRAM98025 cover

ERKIN: Piano Concerto. KHACHATURIAN: Piano Concerto in Db / Gülsin Onay, pno; Bilkent Symphony Orch.; José Serebrier, cond / Gramola/A.R. 025

This is one of two albums I downloaded for review this month that are ostensibly issued by Gramola, but as you can see from the front cover image it looks absolutely nothing like a Gramola CD, and the back cover—laid out in “typewriter” styled type—it has a catalog number of ARCD 925, so I don’t know what this is, but it’s available and here’s the review.

The first work on this CD is clearly the winner here, a previously-unrecorded piano concerto by Ulvi Cemal Erkin, one of the “Turkish Five,” and an outstanding piece it is, alternating between somewhat Bartók-like figures and more Romantic-sounding (but not insipid) passages. It also helps that Gülsin Onay, a name unknown to me, is an excellent pianist. It seems that she is a Turkish pianist of German descent who operates out of Cambridge, England. Accompanying her on this disc is the excellent conductor José Serebrier, so we have two first-class artists for a change.

Although some of the first movement consists of fluttering figures in the right hand, most of the music is meaty and extremely interesting. There are fast eighth-note passages for both brass and strings, and yes, some of the harmonies used come from authentic Turkish music. Those of you familiar with Erkin’s music will know what I mean; he was a master at blending Eastern and Western musical motifs in his music, and it’s a shame that this concerto is not better known. Erkin had a definite flair for the dramatic gesture in much of his music, and that comes to the fore in the first movement. The “Andante” opens with slow, spaced-out notes played by tympani, to which a subtoned clarinet and low string figures are added, creating a somewhat ominous mood without overdoing it. The piano enters softly, almost tentatively at first, and when the orchestra re-enters we hear an extended cello solo set against fluttering string tremolos. The tympani also returns, playing a steady, funereal 4/4 beat, and the music takes on the aspect of a steamy night in the desert. At the 4:46 mark one hears a slowly rising chromatic figure that reminded me of La Mer. The choppy and irregular triad rhythm of the “Scherzo” is set in the minor, which also gives the music a somewhat unsettled quality, while the last movement opens slowly, with much the same feeling as the second, before suddenly moving into an “Allegro” at the 1:35 mark. The music becomes surprisingly frenetic from this point on, the only disappointment being the abrupt and rather formulaic-sounding ending.

The Khachaturian concerto, written in 1936, is one of that composer’s more interesting and less banal works, sounding in fact like a slightly less abrasive Shostakovich. Yet since his more consonant and peppier music is still a fan favorite, one understands why this piece has somehow fallen through the cracks. Indeed, there is little or nothing crowd-pleasing in this work other than the flashiness of some of the piano writing, and that in itself does not detract a whit from the surprising harmonic changes and melodic contours of the first movement. Even the sudden appearance of a viola solo, tonal but set against an atonal background, surprises one and disrupts the image of this composer as a populist. Perhaps he was forced to pay the price for writing this concerto by the “culture bureau,” and thus turned his attentions to the Gayne ballet and other popular drivel. There are hints of the Khachaturian to come in the fast section of this first movement, to be sure, but by and large this is a well-written piece that skirts the edges of modernism in a most unusual manner. But Khachaturian then uses a formulaic ending for the movement, which somewhat spoils the effect of the preceding music.

Like the Erkin concerto, the second movement of this piece is melancholy and somewhat mysterious, but evoking much more Russian than Turkish moods. This movement is full of surprise twists, turns and novel effects, all of which dovetail together splendidly. Only in the third movement do we hear the kind of ostinato rhythms and colorful orchestration that one normally associates with this composer, yet they are handled here in a skillful and interesting manner. When the musical explosions occur, they are modified by Khachaturian’s splendid design and are thus not really moments of empty effects.

A splendid release, then, and well worth seeking out.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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