Mary Woodward at the Festivals

Edinburgh International Festival, Istanbul 1710 : The Book of the Science of Music, Queens Hall, Review:

**** (4 stars)

“an excellent concert”

Why Istanbul? Why 1710?

Dimitrie Cantemir was born in Moldavia but spent much of his life in Istanbul, the centre of the Ottoman Empire.  In 1710 he published Kitab-i lim-i musiki (The Book of the Science of Music) which he dedicated to the then Sultan, Ahmed III.  Jordi Savall’s programme notes call it “an exceptional document … as a fundamental source of knowledge concerning the theory, style and forms of 17th century Ottoman music …[and] as one of the most interesting accounts of the musical life of one of the foremost Oriental countries”.  It contains 335 compositions, some of which form the basis of today’s programme.  They are interspersed with music from the contemporaneous Sephardic and Armenian traditions, reflecting the cultural richness at the heart of the court in Istanbul, where records show that Greek, Armenian and Jewish musicians were present.

Jordi Savall, playing vielle and lyre, was joined by the musicians of Hesperian XXI: Nedyalko Nedyalkov on kavat, Yurdan Tokcan on oud, Hakan Güngör on kanun, Dimitri Psonis on santur and guitarra morisca, and David Mayoral on percussion.  I recognised the vielle – like a violin, but held between the knees and played with a bow held “the wrong way round” – and the oud – a highly pregnant lute; but the other instruments were new to me.  There was a zither-like instrument played with plectra that looked like ridiculously long fingernails – the kanun; another horizontal stringed instrument played with tiny felted hammers – the santur; a long flute-like wind instrument that was held pointing downwards but being blown from the corner of the mouth – the kaval; and a collection of interesting drums and suchlike. 

It would have been lovely if someone had taken a few minutes to introduce the players and their instruments, which I could only glimpse through the gaps in the heads in front of me.  To add to the challenge of seeing them, the players were on the stage and I was seated below them – the only instruments I had a clear view of were Jordi Savall’s vielles [which needed constant re-tuning], so I apologise for my rather vague descriptions of the others!

It would also have been lovely had someone taken a minute or so to say hello to us: but no one said a word.  Occasionally one of the musicians would smile at another one, but most of the time they played with expressionless faces: such a contrast from yesterday’s recital where we were welcomed and included from the very first moment.  I began to feel like someone visiting to zoo to observe strange animals and their behavior, rather that someone invited to participate in a musical celebration.  The rest of the audience in a packed Queen’s Hall, however, applauded enthusiastically at every available opportunity – they presumably saw nothing odd in this extremely formal method of presentation.

The programme named all the pieces played: but without some sort of guidance I had no idea which piece was which.  I was surprised to arrive at the interval when I thought we’d just completed the first set of pieces – yet another bit of confusion amidst a whole load of others…

Despite all this, the music was fascinating.  There was very little that was in any way familiar, but the music was a rich tapestry of sounds, melodies, overlapping textures, interesting harmonies and complex rhythms.  Pieces would often begin slowly and quietly but build to a loud and lively dance: interestingly, even the liveliest of pieces stayed in melancholy minor modes.  At the end of the first half, my musical brain was feeling the strain of listening to so much that was unfamiliar, so that I wondered how I’d manage another helping of the same. 

Somehow, though, the second half seemed less taxing.  There were lovely conversational exchanges between the different instruments, and some staggeringly virtuoso solos.  These were duly saluted with appreciative applause, while those pieces which ended “all at once” rather than tailing off till only one instrument was playing were greeted with delighted laughter.

At the end of the programme, there was prolonged, vociferous applause.  The encore was well-chosen: the most accessible of all the pieces we’d heard that morning, with melodies and harmonic progressions that sounded very familiar, even if they were played on less familiar instruments. 

Maybe everyone else present was completely familiar with the music of Istanbul 1710 and didn’t need explanations – but I was sad that the only time the musicians really came alive was when they were acknowledging our applause and preparing to leave the stage.  It was an excellent concert, but the lack of that human touch is why I could only give it 4 stars…

Edinburgh International Festival, Istanbul 1710 : The Book of the Science of Music: Run Ended.


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