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 Recording of the Week  Russian Orchestral Music from the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic

On Tuesday evening I had the great pleasure of attending the Proms debut of the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic (the first performance at the festival, in fact, by any Turkish orchestra) under their livewire Austrian conductor Sascha Goetzel in a programme dominated by visions of the East by Western composers; several of these works also feature on their new disc for Onyx Classics, released last Monday and recorded earlier this year in the garage of a Turkish shopping mall!

Sascha Goetzel
Sascha Goetzel

Founded in 1999, the orchestra has 90% Turkish membership (its non-Turkish members include Goetzel’s father, in the violin section!). I was initially a bit circumspect about focusing too much on ethnicity (much ink has been spilled over the past half-century about ‘Orientalism’ in music and elsewhere, and whether orchestras can be said to have a distinctively ‘national’ sound has also been the subject of recent discussions in the classical music media), but the Borusan forces seem to cheerfully embrace the idea of ‘Otherness’ and to capitalise on Istanbul’s unique situation between East and West, both in terms of repertoire choices and the special sound-world which they create: their percussion section, for instance, is particularly vivid and forthright, and the string section has an especially wide tonal palette, veering excitingly from raw and muscular to lithe and silky.

The centrepiece of their new disc offers a refreshing twist on one of the most familiar ‘Oriental’ orchestral works, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, performed here with short improvised interludes on stringed instruments such as the oud and qanun, and also integrating traditional Turkish and Middle Eastern percussion such as the def and the bendir into the tutti sections.

For me, the interludes work beautifully as palate-cleansers and serve to throw the music which surrounds them into sharper relief – I could swear I picked up on more of the ‘exotic’ elements of the rest of the work as a result, though we probably also have Goetzel’s imaginative conducting to thank for that! The performance as a whole is mesmerising - the violin solos depicting Scheherazade herself, as she spins the sultan his nightly bedtime stories that save her life, are especially beguiling and sinuous (and, most crucially, just a touch vulnerable) in the hands of Pelin Halkaci Alkin.

One of the most memorable aspects of the live performance was the flamboyant podium persona of Goetzel, who combines authority with an abandoned physicality that might break into dance at any moment! But somehow none of this comes across as superficial showmanship - the energy and almost balletic grace which he transmits to his players comes across so very strongly on this recording, even without the visuals to remind us.

The encore for Tuesday night’s prom was perhaps the highlight of an already distinguished evening (the last item on the official programme, the orchestral suite from Respighi’s opulently sensual ballet Belkis, Queen of Sheba, appears on the orchestra’s first disc for Onyx, released in 2010). Following a short but impassioned speech about music’s potential to break down geographical and cultural boundaries, Goetzel announced that the orchestra ‘couldn’t come here from the Bosphorus without bringing us the music of the Bosphorus!’, and they proceeded in truly breathtaking style with Ulvi Erkin’s rip-roaring Kocecke, a ten-minute whistle-stop tour through Turkish dances which also features on the new disc and which I’ll certainly be revisiting again (probably when the neighbours are out, as it’s very much music that demands to be heard at full throttle!)

The Borusan forces offer some of the most vital, vivid orchestral playing I’ve heard in a long time, whether throwing new light on an established warhorse or introducing us to relative rarities – I urge you to give them a whirl, and here’s hoping that there’s more to come in their survey of East meets West (Ravel’s Sheherazade, please?!)

Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade

Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra, Sascha Goetzel

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC