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ClassicsOnline Home » SAYGUN, A.A.: Piano Concerto No. 1 / 12 Preludes / FRANCAIX, J.: Piano Sonata / ALKAN, C.V.: Le chemin de fer (Biret Archive Edition, Vol. 11)
“One notable aspect of the concert was the appearance on the podium of each composer in turn to conduct his own work: Messrs Cemal Reşit Rey, Ulvi Cemal Erkin and Ahmet Adnan Saygun all took the helm with great aplomb … The pianist, Miss Idil Biret, barely 17 years old, proved herself to be a musician of remarkable personality, performing Adnan Saygun’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with great poise, lyrical eloquence and impressive technical mastery. The concerto itself is an attractive and imposing piece, with its clearly etched character, dramatic accents and originality of musical idiom. This powerful, tumultuous work-in which the piano is by no means treated with kid gloves, but rather pitted against the orchestra-deserves to become widely known. Miss Biret received a warm and enthusiastic ovation.
The orchestra in question was the Orchestre Colonne (France) whose excellent musicians, it should be noted, gave performances of high quality, marked by skill, fluency and coherence throughout. Programmes of new music, such as this, unquestionably demand a particular level of effort and commitment from an orchestra, and the Colonne players here acquitted themselves most admirably. Her Majesty Queen Elisabeth honoured the concert with her presence and was warmly applauded both on her arrival and as she took her leave.”
— Jacques Stehman La Lanterne, Belgium 1958
“We are in the presence of one of the greatest virtuosos of our time. I do not see in her generation any other pianist who possesses an equal mastery of the keyboard, in the service of such a mature mind so rich in imagination.”
— Marc Pincherle Nouvelles Litteraires, France 1959
Ahmet Adnan SAYGUN (1907–1991): Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 34 • Twelve Preludes in Aksak Rhythms, Op. 45
Jean FRANÇAIX (1912–1997): Sonate pour piano
Charles-Valentin ALKAN (1813–1888): Le chemin de fer, Op. 27
Mily Alexeyevich BALAKIREV (1837–1910): Islamey
A leading figure among the five composers whose work dominated Turkish music during the middle years of the last century, Adnan Saygun, like Hasan Ferid Alnar, Ulvi Cemal Erkin, Necil Kâzim Akses and Cemal Reşit Rey, was born in the first decade of the twentieth century, and, like them, lived through the earlier years of war and revolution and through the period of the momentous reforms initiated by Mustafa Kemal Paşa, Atatürk, far-reaching changes that had their effect, not least, on music in Turkey, as they did on the language, dress and education of the people.
Adnan Saygun was born in 1907 in Izmir, a city which would have brought some contact with western music. He sang in a choir at his elementary school and at the age of thirteen began piano lessons, embarking in 1925 on a career as a music teacher in elementary schools and then in high schools. In 1928, supported by an award from the Ministry of Education, he travelled to Paris, where he became a student at the Schola Cantorum, a pupil of Vincent d’Indy. Back in Turkey once more in 1931, he began teaching at the Music Teachers Training College in Ankara, an institution established in 1924 as part of the musical education programme set in motion by Atatürk, whose vision, in music, was for the development of Turkish music, its roots in the music of the people, its techniques the best that Western Europe could offer. Adnan Saygun played a leading rôle in the new musical policies. In Ankara he also conducted for a time the Presidential Symphony Orchestra and from 1936 to 1939 taught at the Istanbul Municipal Conservatory. It was at this period that Saygun had his first contact with the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók. With Mahmud Gazimihâl, Saygun had written to correct a mistaken claim in a Hungarian publication, suggesting that the music of Anatolia was associated with that of Persia and Arab countries; for Saygun and his colleague the music of Anatolia was more closely associated with that of Hungary. To investigate this Bartók joined Saygun in a tour of southern Turkey, visiting, with some discomfort, villages, hearing and recording the music of peasants, music that seemed to draw on a source common to elements in Hungarian folk-music. The results of their research were published only in 1976.
In 1939 Saygun was appointed as an inspector of the official Halkevleri, centres established by Atatürk for popular enlightenment, in accordance with the secular principles of the Republic. The position brought Saygun even wider contact with the people and their musical traditions. In his later career he taught at the Ankara State Conservatory, founded by Hindemith, and was the recipient of the honours and awards appropriate to his position in national life.
As a composer Saygun had written, at the pressing insistence of Atatürk, the first of a series of operas. His other compositions include three string quartets, concertos for piano, and for violin, for viola, and for cello. His greatest work, however, remains his oratorio Yunus Emre, setting texts drawn from the later thirteenth century Sufic mystic poet of that name, a poet whose language has more in common with the language of the people, the Turkish of the language reform, than with Ottoman Turkish, with its Arabic and Persian elements. The oratorio was dedicated to Leopold Stokowski (who conducted it at a UN concert in 1958 in New York) but has still won less of a hearing abroad than it deserves.
The first of Adnan Saygun’s two Piano Concertos was completed in 1957 and had its première in Brussels (1958), with Idil Biret, conducted by the composer. The first movement, broadly in tripartite sonata-form, opens with an uneven rhythmical figure that is to return, leading to the entry of the soloist. Further contrasting thematic and rhythmic elements lead to a cadenza, before the greatly modified return of earlier material in a recapitulation. The slow movement offers a distinct contrast, introduced by the woodwind, its final air of tranquillity immediately broken by the final brilliant and demanding Allegro assai.
Saygun’s Aksak Tartılar Üzerine 12 Prelüd, Op. 45 (Twelve Preludes on Aksak Rhythms) are dedicated to İdil Biret and date from 1967. The rhythms described as ‘aksak’ (‘limping’) and derived from Turkish folk-music had been described by Bartók as ‘Bulgarian rhythms’, and occur under that title in Mikrokosmos and are used in his Fifth String Quartet. They are, in fact, rhythms that combine binary and ternary units. Thus, in the 12 Preludes, Nos. 1, 4, 6 and 10, with a metre of 5/8, have a rhythm of 2 + 3, binary followed by ternary. No. 9, also in 5/8 metre, is 3 + 2, ternary followed by binary. Of the other Preludes No. 12 is essentially 4 + 3, while Nos. 7 and 8 divide the beats as 3 + 2 + 3 and 3 + 3 + 2, Nos. 3 and 5, with seven quavers in a bar, are divided as 2 + 2 + 3 and 3 + 2 + 2 respectively, and Nos. 2 and 11, with nine quavers in a bar, break up the rhythm as 2 + 2 + 2 + 3.
Like Idil Biret, a pupil of Nadia Boulanger, Jean Françaix was born in Le Mans, the son of a pianist and composer who was director of the Conservatoire there. He showed ambition as a composer even at the age of six. At the Paris Conservatoire, where he was a piano pupil of Isidor Philipp, he won first prize as a pianist and, through Nadia Boulanger, enjoyed the patronage of Princess Edmond de Polignac, soon starting to win an international reputation as a composer. He went on to a career of great distinction, prolific as a composer in many genres, highly gifted as an orchestrator, writing music of elegance and wit. The Piano Sonata by Jean Françaix was completed in 1960 and dedicated to Idil Biret. Neo-classical in style and making its own technical demands on a performer, the work opens with a Prélude, marked Allegrissimo, in A major and in 7/4, its principal theme announced immediately after the opening flourish. This is followed by a D minor Elégie, its melody underpinned by continuing quaver figuration. The third movement, a Scherzo, is followed by a final Toccata, bringing to an end a composition characteristic both of the composer and of his country.
The name of Alkan was once joined with those of Chopin, Liszt, Schumann and Brahms, as one of the greatest composers for the piano in the age that followed the death of Beethoven. At the same time he won praise as one of the most remarkable pianists of his time. Nevertheless much of his life was spent in eccentric obscurity, withdrawn from society. In recent years there has been a revival of interest in his music, led at the beginning of the twentieth century by Busoni and furthered by other champions. Born Charles-Valentin Morhange, the eldest of the five children of Alkan Morhange, a music-teacher whose forebears had settled in Paris in the Marais, the Jewish quarter of the city, Alkan and his brothers chose to use their father’s first name in preference to the family name and all were to make their careers in music in one way or another. Charles-Valentin Alkan made his first concert appearance as a violinist at the age of seven in 1821. At the Conservatoire he was a piano pupil of Joseph Zimmermann, future father-in-law of Gounod and teacher of Bizet and César Franck, and won considerable success as a child prodigy, exciting even the admiration of Cherubini. In the 1830s, his studies at the Conservatoire now concluded with great distinction, Alkan settled at an apartment in the Place d’Orléans. He continued to busy himself as a composer, chiefly for the piano. In March 1838, after a series of concert appearances in Paris which had established him as a performer of the first rank, Alkan appeared in a recital with Chopin, before an enthusiastic audience. This seems to have been his last public concert for some six years. Concert appearances in 1844 and 1845 were followed by a further long period of silence and withdrawal from the concert platform. 1848 in particular brought a significant disappointment, when he was passed over as a possible successor to Zimmermann at the Conservatoire. He gave a concert in May 1849, his last for the next 25 years. Isolating himself from the general musical life of Paris, Alkan continued in the following years to teach and, intermittently, to compose. In 1873, however, he emerged from retirement to offer a series of Six Petits Concerts de Musique Classique at the Salons Erard, with which he had had an enduring association. These concert series seem to have continued intermittently until the time of his death in 1888, while the curious could hear him every Monday and Thursday at the Salle Erard, where an instrument was at his disposal. Le chemin de fer, Op. 27, (The Railway), was published in 1844, celebrating in musical terms a railway journey, a relative novelty of the period and something that was to provide material over the years for a number of other composers, intrigued by the rhythm of the machine and the whistle of the engine. Railway journeys of this kind presented possible dangers, and of these Alkan is well aware, as the train gathers speed, before coming to a halt in safety.
In the nineteenth century Russia saw, as elsewhere, an increasing national consciousness, reflected in music particularly by the Russian Five, the composers, at first largely amateur, led by Balakirev. Born in Nizhny-Novgorod in 1837, he had early encouragement from a patron and was able to move to St Petersburg, where he began to establish himself as a pianist and composer. It was here that he met two young army officers, César Cui and Modest Mussorgsky, enthusiastic amateur composers, over whom he exercised some influence. In 1861 he met Rimsky-Korsakov, then a naval officer, and the following year Borodin, a research chemist, completing the group of nationalist composers described by their polymath mentor Vladimir Stasov as the Mighty Handful. In the following years Balakirev remained the leader and inspiration of this group, freely offering advice, whether welcome or not, both to them and to other aspirants like Tchaikovsky and firmly opposed to what he regarded as German influence, the growing importance of the St Petersburg Conservatory, established, with royal patronage, by Anton Rubinstein. As time went on, however, Balakirev became increasingly isolated from Russian musical life, which had owed a great deal to him. His relationship with the Moscow Conservatory, established by Nikolay Rubinstein, brother of Anton, was more satisfactory and it was Nikolay Rubinstein, to whom the work is dedicated, who introduced the oriental fantasy Islamey to the St Petersburg public in 1869. Written in that year and revised in 1902, Islamey remains the best known of Balakirev’s compositions, the only one to bring profit to his publishers. The fantasy is based on three themes, the first, known as Islamey and heard by Balakirev during a visit to the Caucasus. The second theme, from the same source, is lively in rhythm and these two themes lead to the expressive third theme, which Balakirev had heard sung by the Armenian baritone Konstantin de Lazari at Tchaikovsky’s house in the summer of 1869, all three clearly stated. This theme later emerges in more energetic guise, as the material is developed. The work is technically demanding and did not at first meet with full approval, but, by its nature, was to attract the attention of virtuoso pianists such as Liszt, who took it into their repertoire.
Idil Biret wishes to thank the management of the Orchestre Colonne for agreeing to the release of this historic recording.
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