Turkey’s Flowering Renaissance

Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI - Istanbul - Dimitrie Cantemir (1673-1723)
Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI – Istanbul – Dimitrie Cantemir (1673-1723)
Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI

Istanbul – Dimitrie Cantemir (1673-1723) (Aliavox/distributed by Harmonia Mundi, 2010)

I have never heard medieval or renaissance Turkish music before, though I have heard Turkish music played on traditional instruments as well as, Armenian and the music of Sephardic Jews. When I received Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI’s Istanbul in the mail, with its booklet and gorgeous music, I knew that reviewing the recording would require a steep learning curve, but with each pleasurable listen, I heard both familiar and unfamiliar instruments, familiar and unfamiliar modes.

The experience was not totally new to my ears since I have attended my share of Oriental music concerts over the years and it seems that my DNA is predisposed to these modes because I never experienced an adjustment period coming from the West.

Savall leaves his viola de gamba behind for this recording and plays a rebab (type of fiddle played vertical while resting on the lap, a vièle (Medieval fiddle) and a lyra à archet (I cannot identify this instrument), but my guess is it’s a member of the fiddle or lyre family. Other instruments on the recording include the oud (Arabic lute), ney (reed flute), tanbur (a long-necked lute), kanun (zither played on the lap), santur (dulcimer), duduk (Armenian reed instrument), flute, Turkish kemence (long-necked fiddle), kamanche (Iranian spiked fiddle) and percussion (frame and hand drums).

I listened to the recording several times. The first time I listened to the recording I acclimated to the Oriental rhythms and modes. The other times I distinguished between instruments and musical traditions. The music on the recording hails from Christian, Muslim and Sephardic Jewish traditions. According to the liner notes, “On 29, May, 1453, Constantinople was captured by Sultan Mehmet II. This glorious capital of the Byzantine Empire, now known by the name Istanbul, became the capital of the Ottoman Empire, as well as, the cultural center of Islam. In order to renovate the city, populate it, and rapidly turn it into a flourishing and prosperous capital, Mehmet II adopted a policy of transferring Muslim, Christian and Jewish inhabitants from various regions of the empire.”

The music performed on this recording also hails from various regions. Al-Rumi’s Sufi music appears along side, Sephardic Jewish music (origins in Spain), Greek and Armenian music. And as you might suspect with a list like that, the recording takes a few listens for review purposes. It’s not just a matter of pointing out a ney on one song or an oud on another song. And much of what appears on this recording is beyond my expertise though I will mention a few pieces that stood out each time I listened to Istanbul.

Three Sephardic pieces, Los Paxaricos with its melancholic conversation between an oud and a lyre à archet, El Amor Yo No Savia with its sweet, but fast tempo melody played on a flute, and Spanish influences that recall the 20th century French composer Maurice Ravel’s Bolero and Madre de la Gracia also lively with ney, spiked fiddle and lyre à archet all stood out for me. The Armenian pieces, Chant and Dance with its varied tempos and instruments, though the focus is on the duduks and Lamento with two duduks (one playing the continuous drone and the other carrying the mournful but sweet melody).

The Islamic pieces which appear in sets of taksim (improvisations) followed by makam (composition) also vary in tempo and instrumental arrangements with the oud, ney, percussion, kanun, tanbur and santur playing key roles. These pieces sounded modern to my ears and I wondered if a long succession of musicians have kept this music alive since medieval times.

I would love to say more about this recording, but I don’t feel like I know enough about early Oriental music. I will say that my ears adjusted to this recording right away and I felt at home. Many of the songs are lively (not quite belly dancing music) with a few romantic pieces and laments included. I applaud the musicians on this recording for their scholarly research (see the booklet), their knowledge of traditional instruments and their magnificent performances.

And if you enjoy this recording, Jordi Savall has another 67+ early music recordings available through his label Aliavox. And his daughter Arianna Savall, son Ferran Savall and wife, opera vocalist Montserrat Figueras also released recordings on the label. Call it a family affair. At least it’s a pleasurable one.

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