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The 41st edition of the İstanbul Foundation for Culture and Art's (İKSV) annual İstanbul Music Festival managed to get under way despite the postponement of their June 4 opening concert due to ongoing civil disturbances in Taksim Square and Beşiktaş.

The concerts slated for June 5 and 6, in venues in Karaköy and Bebek, respectively, went ahead as planned. On June 7, duo-pianists Ufuk and Bahar Dördüncü presented an intensely poetic evening of French and Russian four-hand piano and two-piano masterpieces in a performance called “Dances for Two Pianos” at İstanbul Modern.

Their program of selections by Ravel and Rachmaninoff was a highly satisfying artistic experience as much as one that offered healing and respite from the high levels of tension in İstanbul. Ravel's “Valses nobles et sentimentales” for four hands on one piano sent a kaleidoscope of shimmering watercolors into the museum's large space, and moved seamlessly from sublime softness to crashing crescendos throughout the suite of eight contiguous pieces. As the title suggests, stately dances alternate with emotionally blurry séances that paint a slightly off-kilter portrait in toto.

A couple of visual elements added interest on top of Ravel's fascinating blend of impressionist and modernist musical stylings: The ladies' hands carefully crossed over each other with balletic grace as they played, and through the windows on either end of the facing wall we could see a series of ships sailing silently on the Bosporus, as if tuned in to the French composer's rhythmic sequences.

The duo performed, to this listener's delight, both Suite No. 1 and Suite No. 2 for two pianists by Rachmaninoff. This was a rare opportunity to hear both of these particular Russian masters' works, and I was not disappointed with the devotional depth these artists evoked with these knuckle-busters. A majority of the music in the combined total of eight pieces is built on a pillow of what I call “perpetual motion,” a kind of continuous bubbling undercurrent throughout.
Suite No. 1, an early work subtitled “Fantasie tableaux,” takes its programmatic content from four extracts of poetry. They are highly descriptive vignettes of romantic scenes on the water, nights of love, church bells ringing at Easter time and tearful melancholy. Suite No. 2, however, more closely resembles Rachmaninoff's famous Concerto No. 2, as the suite was composed just months before it. The suite's continuous musical flow was enchanting and electric through the Dördüncüs' artful execution of its technical challenges and expressive architecture.
For their finale, the duo revisited Ravel for his grand opus, “La Valse,” an almost demonic twist on the Viennese Waltz. Originally an orchestral piece, the composer had penned a two-piano version as an audition for the Russian choreographer Diaghilev for a new ballet. He was, inexplicably, not impressed. The piece went on to become a symphonic concert staple, and the duo-piano version and the solo piano version are some of the keyboard repertoire's most difficult.

The iconic piece begins with a grotesque low rumble in the bass, then develops and simmers until it reaches full boil and ultimately explodes. It was a thrilling finale that was followed by their encore of the jaunty, percussive “Mikrokosmos” by Bartok. After an interminable season of mostly Mozart and Beethoven throughout the city's venues, this is the kind of innovative programming for which I give hearty thanks. For me, it is another kind of respite.

Bavouzet's Beethoven and Liszt

Despite what I just said above, another offering of Beethoven by French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, through the auspices of İstanbul Recitals at The Seed on June 8, was not just another pianist playing yet another sonata by Beethoven. I will admit that I was not thrilled by his selections (two early Beethoven sonatas, three pieces by Liszt and a Liszt transcription of a Wagner opera), but he won me over by the sheer dint of his incredible dynamism and interpretive savvy.

Bavouzet is plugged into an extraterrestrial source of energy. His whole approach to whatever he plays is made especially compelling by his organic genius, which shows in the way that all geniuses show -- the obviousness of personally communicative interpretations. In this case, he was channeling Beethoven's mood swings through a heightened cosmic relationship with the keyboard, a soul connection between the two men.

Case in point was beginning Sonata No. 17 “The Tempest” with the most sweetly blissful rolled chords that trailed off like an idle daydream, then plunging suddenly headlong into a tempestuous, defiant diatribe. This signaled what we were to witness from then on. His illumination of both this work and the Sonata No. 18 was an extraordinary adventure in iconoclastic thinking, redolent with fierce drama using all possible volume levels to accentuate their dramatic powers.

Bavouzet also takes delight in talking to the audience, sharing bits and pieces of musical history with his ebullient personality. When it came to talking about Liszt, he shared stories about how pedagogues of the day told the composer the “Grosses Konzertsolo,” which Bavouzet was about to play, was ridiculously difficult and, in fact, unplayable. Yes, this piece is absurdly difficult -- to the point of being laughably so in places. Some of it is gargantuan garbage, but some of it is breathtakingly rhapsodic, and certainly fascinating from several aspects. Bavouzet explained that this piece was the precursor to Liszt's great B-Minor Piano Sonata. “The Grosses Konzert solo is not a masterpiece, but without it, the B-Minor Sonata wouldn't exist,” he explained from the stage. “The themes are similar, including those of death and resurrection.” That he played this monsterpiece from memory was miraculous, but then he followed it with Liszt's transcription of Wagner's “Liebestod” and its “Prelude” transcribed by Hungarian pianist Zoltan Kocsis. All were exceptionally burnished and lustrous in Bavouzet's hands.

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