The Pekinel twins: Sisters at play

What's the chance of having two great pianists in one family? The Pekinel twins show that lightning does strike twice, says Michael Church
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Turkey's siege of Vienna in 1683 left many traces on that city. The first themed Turkish coffee house opened there that same year, but the Ottoman empire's musical effects had a slower burn. Mozart was one of many composers in the later 18th century who spiced up their music with bursts of alla turca, while his opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail - in which a heroic young blade saves his beloved from the clutches of a pasha, who turns out to be a gentleman - traded excitedly on Turkey's dangerous charms.

Turkey's siege of Vienna in 1683 left many traces on that city. The first themed Turkish coffee house opened there that same year, but the Ottoman empire's musical effects had a slower burn. Mozart was one of many composers in the later 18th century who spiced up their music with bursts of alla turca, while his opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail - in which a heroic young blade saves his beloved from the clutches of a pasha, who turns out to be a gentleman - traded excitedly on Turkey's dangerous charms.

What's not so well-known is the reverse infiltration, of European sounds pervading the Ottoman court (despite the venerability of its own classical music). The sultans imported musicians from France and Austro-Hungary, and some created European-style compositions of their own. Sultan Selim III, a noted flautist, founded an Italian-style opera house in 1797, and introduced the European scale. His successor Mahmut II replaced Turkey's famous Janissary band with a European one, and hired Gaetano Donizetti's brother Giuseppi - who became known as Donizetti Pasha - to direct the opera; themes from Verdi's Il Trovatore became particular court favourites.

When Kemal Ataturk launched his republic and began enforced Westernisation in the 1920s, the process went into overdrive: European clothes became obligatory, Arabic script was replaced by Roman, Turkish music was banned from the radio, and Istanbul's Traditional Classical Music Conservatory was replaced by one teaching Western classical music. In Ataturk's view, Turkish art-music "was insufficient for the sophisticated soul and feelings of the Turk".

This may have been appallingly heavy-handed, but many Turkish musicians were already busy Westernising themselves. Ulvi Cemal Erkin was one of several who went to study at the Paris Conservatoire: on his return, he became the director of Ankara Conservatory, and found his voice as a composer melding Asian and European modes.

Meanwhile, Western musicians were being welcomed with open arms: the German composer Paul Hindemith, who had been invited to advise on Turkey's musical life, encouraged refugee Jewish musicians to make Turkey their home.

At present this East-West traffic is flowing freely, with some notable pianists making the running. Deniz Arman Gelenbe, who leads the Arman Trio and heads the keyboard department at Trinity college of music, makes a point of performing the works of Erkin and his friends. The redoubtable Fazil Say takes Beethoven to remote Kurdish strongholds, and weaves Kurdish modes into his Western compositions. But the real cheerleaders for Turkey's classical music are an exotic double-act named Guher and Suher Pekinel.

They are kittenish, pretty, and petite identical twins. Two-piano-playing may be an art which falls somewhere between chamber and solo performance, but the Pekinels have made it their own. They never look at each other as they play: back-to-back, they never falter or fudge an entry. Is this thanks to their biological advantage? After all, it's sometimes said that identical twins are one soul in two bodies. "No!" they shout in unison, sitting side by side on a sofa. "People think that because we are identical we can play together more easily, but it's actually harder," says Suher. "Most twins want to be the same, but we have always wanted to be different," says Guher.

"Being different," Suher adds, "is the essence of duo-playing. The first requirement is to breathe together, and that was born into us. But then we have to develop our individual and separate strengths."

"That is why we didn't play the same pieces at college," says her sister. "And why we work alone on our interpretation of the works we play."

They initially gave their two-piano performances facing each other, but, as Suher explains, that led to problems. "We found ourselves getting more and more unhappy at the fact that we had to take off the second piano's lid, so as not to project its sound away from the audience. With the lid off, the sound went straight up into the roof. We also found that, facing each other, we were distracted. So we decided to put the pianos in parallel, and gradually reached the situation we have now, where both pianos open towards the public."

Unlike many duos, they study both parts, and therefore both have their own view of how they should be played. "We rehearse one way," says Guher, "and then, on stage, she does something completely different. But I feel exactly as she does at that moment. Off stage we fight, but on stage it's complete harmony." She gives a tinkling laugh. "Now, how does that happen?"

With identical twins, one is usually dominant: is this the case with them? Suher: "Sometimes I am dominant, and sometimes she is. I am more dominant in analysing the work; she is more dominant in life, but recently she went through difficult times, and withdrew into herself a little." Problems with other people? Guher: "True, but that is private!" Suher: "I had to draw her towards expressing herself through music, to bring her out of herself. And now she is her old self again."

As with many duos, life has pulled them geographically apart, despite the fact that they share a studio in Zurich, and both have flats in London. "We are together only at the keyboard," says Guher. Do they miss each other? The reply comes in unison: "No! We talk a lot on the phone." Suher: "But when we come together to play, we have to re-find our balance. Eight hours' practice on the day of a concert, to make it perfect." Guher: "I don't like that word 'perfect'. We practise because we want to feel secure." Suher: "I don't like that word 'secure' - we want to feel free to take risks, and security doesn't feed the soul. When we play back-to-back, something new creates itself in the music, as a result of the danger."

Just how perfect their balance is can be judged from the Mozart recordings that Warner is now reissuing at the rate of one a month: I know of no more riveting version of the sublime K 497 sonata than theirs. They've also released a CD of Bach's keyboard concertos, which is every bit as authoritative.

But what most excites them at present is a work they recently premiered at the Queen Elizabeth Hall: Janus in Orient by the Azerbaijani composer Ilyas Mirzayev. "We wanted to commission a piece to reflect the richness of Ottoman culture, which came from Central Asia, passed through the Balkans, but also collected influences from the Levant," says Suher. In its 18-minute span it brings in the clarinet, violin, spike-fiddle, darbuka drum, and ecclesiastical organ, but its most pervasive sound is that of the ney flute. "The ney expresses joy and excitement," says Guher. "And also loneliness on the steppes of Anatolia. And for Sufis it was the link with God. But we wanted to show that though Turkish music has all these elements, it is also part of the European soul."

This brings them to a topic which makes them sad. Seven years ago they put money and much effort into founding a cultural centre in Istanbul, designed to foster the arts of East and West in equal measure: after a glittering start, the project ran into the sand, and remains half-built while successive Turkish ministers of culture vacillate over whether or not to support it. Some ministers lean towards Muslim culture, others want to redress the balance and go the other way. "But Turkey was never a strictly Muslim country like Iran," says Suher. "Its attitude to religion has always been relaxed." Guher: "People must not become blinkered." Suher: "The young generation want change, and are ready for it. Just as the Bosphorus at Istanbul literally unites Europe and Asia, so Turkey will one day be the bridge between two great cultures." Guher: "But we hope that Mr Bush's policies towards Iran don't spoil the chances of that happening." Suher: "Because Asiatic people have their pride. And if that is affronted, we could all be in trouble."

Then Guher comes out with a sweetly oracular pronouncement: "In the end, music is a big energy with millions of small lights. They only need to be projected, to create harmony among human beings."

The Pekinels' 'Bach Keyboard Concertos' is out now on Warner Classics, which is also reissuing the sisters' complete catalogue on CD during 2005.

Comments