Can Çakmur Plays Music “Without Borders”

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BARTÓK: Piano Sonata. MITROPOULOS: Passacaglia, Intermezzo e Fuga. SAYGUN: Piano Sonata. ENESCU: Piano Sonata No. 3 / Can Çakmur, pno / Bis SACD-2630

Turkish pianist Can Çakmur (pronounced “Djahn Chakmur”) presents here four 20th-century piano works, the two very unfamiliar ones by Dmitri Mitropoulos and Ahmed Adnan Saygun being bookended by the more familiar pieces by Bartók and Enescu. The rather pretentious liner notes go into a nose-in-air discussion about how, in the late 19th century, “actual research into folk music came to replace the previous practice of making crude re-harmonisations of traditional tunes without any consideration of their sources and musical content,” that “using the essence of folk music as art supplied a very convincing solution to the dissolution of tonality.” Which is all well and good if you’re discussing Eastern European and Turkish folk music, which he is, but has little or nothing to do with Western European folk music which was resolutely tonal and, in many cases, baby-simple.

But beyond this, Çakmur is an interesting pianist who has his own “take” on how to play some of this music. His concept of Bartók’s sonata, for instance, bears little resemblance to the way Bartók played his own music (as captured in numerous recordings by the composer), but instead plays it in an angular, neoclassical style closer related to Stravinsky or even Antheil. (Listening to his performance, I kept thinking of the latter’s Ballet Mécanique.) The music can clearly be played this way if one chooses, but in this era of historically-informed performances, I find it ironic that modern musicians, by and large, have absolutely no respect for the way composers who recorded played or conducted their own music, while it’s perfectly OK to distort or even ruin music by composers long dead for whom they have no evidence of their performing style.

Yet I was mesmerized by Çakmur’s performance of the virtually unknown Mitropoulos piece, which opens with a soft, slow-moving passacaglia using bitonal but not forbidding harmonies. This Çakmur plays with great delicacy of phrasing, drawing out the “melos” of the music quite beautifully. This later builds to a crescendo of considerable intensity, followed by a decrescendo into quieter territory before the finish. This piece sounded, to my ears, very similar to some of Sorabji’s piano works. An interesting feature of this passacaglia is that, although the meter sounds “regular,” it is actually marked as 3/4 + 2/2 =  2/2 + 3/4. The “Intermezzo” section is a rapid, bouncy piece in bitonal harmony with irregular beats that keeps shifting within the basic 3/4 tempo (see score excerpt below). The fuga, in 2/4, again shifts rhythmic accents by using a mixed sequence of 16th, 32nd and 8th notes. This piece is a real “monster” to play, but Çakmur knocks it off as if playing it in his sleep. He is clearly quite the pianist.

Mitropoulos - Intermezzo

Intermezzo from the Mitropoulos piece

With Saygun’s sonata he is clearly on home ground, and ironically, he plays this piece with more continent legato phrasing than he did the Bartók (yet this is how Bartók played his own music). This sonata was his last work, written in 1991 and finished just days before his death. It is even more abstract than some of his earlier music, much of which has been brilliantly recorded by another Turkish pianist, Idíl Biret (who knew Saygun personally). Again, from the flowery liner notes, “This sonata seems to refer to folk music only on a theoretical level.” I would argue that it has no connection with Turkish folk music at all, but Çakmur has this “theme” to push, so by God he’s going to shove his theories into each work he performs even if they don’t fit. Despite its many abstract qualities, Saygun was such a good composer that he was incapable of writing a meandering or disconnected piece, thus he manages to tie all of the themes, semi-themes and motifs in it together into a cohesive whole. This was, to me, the major piece on this SACD. The second movement is almost minimalist, at least in its use of a sparse, delicate melodic line that meanders for a bit before coming together as a cohesive whole, later morphing into a series of rhythmic chords by the right hand in and around the slow melodic line. The third movement is almost playful in its asymmetric rhythmic layout and shifting moods.

Çakmur’s performance of the Enescu sonata is light and airy, moving along on smooth motor rhythms beneath a tonal but modal upper line and harmony. And again, in this sonata, Çakmur flashes some really smooth technique over some very difficult passages.

Overall, then, a very interesting CD. Even if you have other performances of the Bartók sonata, I think you’ll find Çakmur’s reading unique, and the Mitropoulos and Saygun pieces are really outstanding.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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