Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

Jerfi Aji isn’t a man in a hurry. He takes his time, thinks hard, ponders imponderables, prepares meticulously, keeps himself to himself. Quietly, he explores the repertory, music before showmanship, refinement before excess. He makes elegant chamber music https://www.classicalsource.com/concert/trio-kuvars-viyolet-at-lycee-notre-dame-de-sion-istanbul/. He’s an ideal blend of intellectual application and emotional intensity, a dreamer, thirsty after knowledge, but – given his domicile and place of work: the old Stenon waters between the Mediterranean and Black Sea, in times of ever-spiralling tension and inflation – a level-headed pragmatist equally. Aji completed his postgraduate training at Istanbul Technical University’s Dr Erol Üçer Center for Advanced Studies in Music (MIAM), studying with the veteran State Artist Ayşegül Sarıca, who in the early-fifties was a student at the Paris Conservatoire of the Marguerite Long disciple Lucette Descaves. Subsequently, in 2006, he went to Baltimore, attending the Peabody Conservatory, Johns Hopkins University. Here he completed his doctoral studies with Marian Hahn, participated in masterclasses with Leon Fleisher, Murray Perahia and Jerome Rose, and received the 2011 Frances M. Wentz Turner Memorial Prize. These days, as a MIAM faculty member, he mixes performing with teaching, fostering new generations of Turkish musicians embracing the Western road.

Winning the 2019 Sicily International Piano Competition, that year under the presidency of Leslie Howard, brought with it a recording prize – the present release, Poems, Colours, Flames. Shunning the limelight, Aji may occasionally seem like a self-effacing slow-burner. But the manner can be deceptive. Once the flame is lit, it smoulders and glows before spreading like fire through damp then dry grass, licking and leaping ever higher. Aji’s style suits Scriabin’s world, and especially the chronologically ascending twenty-year span this album covers (1894-1914). From intimacy and murmur, passions slumbering deep, to lava fields, hot flames calling for hot colours, telling us as much biographically as autobiographically, it traverses the composer’s life and styles from the miniaturist to radical innovation, offering an imaginative, philosophical sixty-nine-minute Russian chronicle – a “kaleidoscope of colours and harmonies,” as Aji puts it. “Scriabin the eccentric, enigmatic and ecstatic … It’s with these sentiments in mind – and soul – that I embark on a Scriabin adventure when I sit at the piano … Playing an instrument is a multi-sensory experience by definition. In Scriabin’s case, there’s also the need to consider the phenomenon of synesthesia [and] the concept of flight [literally or metaphorically].”

Of the fifteen tracks four stand out – without in any way lessening the merit of the others. The left-hand Nocturne Opus 9/2, the B-minor Fantaisie Opus 28, and the Fourth and Fifth Sonatas. Works that, respectively, I played as a piano student; got to know through annotating John Ogdon’s 1973 HMV release; and instructively re-experienced/re-evaluated producing Dmitri Alexeev’s 2008-11 Brilliant Classics cycle. The pedalled nuances and stretched timing of the early 1894 Nocturne speak with haunting eloquence, there’s a lingering quality, an expansiveness of phrasing and space, a depth of D-flat sonority that penetrates tearfully. This is a dreamscape floated across an autumn garden, someone unseen caressing not the biggest or airiest of keyboards yet vibrating presence and nostalgia. There’s an old-masters evocación about Aji’s ‘painting’ reminiscent of Neuhaus or Rubinstein, Sokolov, the better in places for tempo (slower), tone and cadences not being pushed or dehazed https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FdUESGqDmTU.

The Fantaisie and Sonatas show a structuralist in charge. Clarity, rhythm and spare pedalling allow notes and textures to blossom, some of the drier corners of the Fifth Sonata and its feu d’artifice radiation negotiated impressively well. Conceptually, the Fourth (1903) is about the striving, the flight, the metamorphosis, of a spirit journeying and imagining from the faintness of a distant star “gleaming softly” in vaporous mist to the blaze of a “flamboyant sun of triumph” in a “sea of light”. The transubstantiation of “langour” into “will” filtered through mystic “blue” F-sharp. Is this commandingly intentioned account ‘blue’ enough? Are any readings ‘blue’ enough? Sicily, the Bosphorus, glisteningly define the colour and bed the light wave. Other than that, who can say, who can be exactly sure what Scriabin wanted? Aji possesses the phial of mystery, time and timbre are his palette. That’s the critical factor.

A provoking off-the-beaten-path album, the luminescent vision of a progressively fevered late-Romantic emphatic throughout – decadent composer here, dedicated pianist there, a century apart, battling the elements, gazing yonder. Past, present, future, all points of the compass, all nervosities of the spirit. Vermeer 40030.

***

Improvisation in B-flat minor Op.12/2
Nocturne for the left hand in D-flat Op.9/2
Étude in C-sharp Op.42/5
Prelude for the left hand Op.9/1

Fantaisie in B-minor, Op.28
Sonata No.4 in F-sharp Op.30
Étude in F-sharp Op.42/4
Two Poèmes Op.32
Poème in D-flat Op.41
Sonata No.5 Op.53
Two Poèmes Op.63
Vers la flamme Op.72