A Colourful Exploration of Musical Istanbul and the Near East


Istanbul – Dimitrie Cantemir: The Book of the Science of Music: Hespèrion XXI / Jordi Savall (lyra/viol/director), Wigmore Hall, London 29.10.2017. (CC)

Dimitrie Cantemir (1673-1723) – Uzzäl usules Darb-i feth No.209; Hüseyni Semâ’î No.268; Uzzäl Sakîl ‘Turna’ Semâ’î No.324; Räst ’Murass’a’ usules Düyek No.214; Hüseyni Sakil-i Aga Rizā No.89

TraditionalLa rosa enflorece – Maciço de rosas. Alagyeaz tsar. Khnki tsarHisar Agir Semai (Ottoman Lament). Ta xyla (Greek); Çeçen kizi (Turkish); Ene Sarére (Armenian); Paxarico tu te llama (Sephardic, Sarajevo). Al aylukhs (Armenian Song and Dance); Hermoza muchachica (Sephardic); O’h intsh anush. Koniali (Turkish and Greek song and dance); Una Pastora

Jordi Savall and his group Hespèrion XXI have always exuded a questing spirit, isolating music worthy of rediscovery and celebration. Here, on an always-welcome visit to the Wigmore Hall, it was music from the Ottoman Empire in dialogue with the Armenian, Greek and Sephardic traditions that was foregrounded. Focusing on Istanbul (Ottoman)/Constantinople (Byzantine), the hub of the evening was a collection of pieces compiled by tanbur (a long-necked lute) virtuoso Dimitie Cantemir, who arrived in the city in 1692. Dedicated to the Sultan Ahmed III, his The Book of the Science of Music included nine compositions by Cantemir itself and was the music of the court; Savall interspersed it with traditional popular music from Armenia and the Sephardic communities in the Ottoman Empire.

Consisting of some 355 compositions (hence the numbers after composition titles above) The Book of the Science of Music is a treasure trove of delights. The Armenian repertoire in this programme comes from the 1982 Thesaurus of Armenian Melodies collected by musicologist Nigoghos Tahmizian.

The infectious rhythms of Uzzäl usules Darb-i feth (No.209) set the tone for the evening. Hespèrion XXI is at once the tightest of ensembles and a collection of super-virtuosos on their instruments, and the shape of the Cantemir pieces (solo leading to tutti dance) rendered them recognizable, anchoring the listening experience. If Hüseyni Semâ’î No.268 was slightly more restrained, it was nevertheless only one step on a journey. The nocturne-like Armenian Khnki tsar offered the extreme other end of the emotional ladder, while the festive Uzzäl Sakîl ‘Turna’ Semâ’î  ushered in the interval with feet a-tapping.

This was not a short concert, and it says much of the selected music that not for one moment was it a test. Whether the aching longing of the opening of the Sephardic Hermoza muchachica or the unmistakably infections Greek aura of Koniali (both of which Savall recorded in vocal versions on his album Balkan – Honey and Blood), the players found the bull’s eye, projecting the glowing vibrancy of these various types of music. It was no surprise that the concert ended with a Cantemir piece, Hüseyni Sakil-i Aga Rizā (recorded by Savall on his album Esprit des Balkans). The surprise may have been that it was neither as overtly virtuosic nor brightly-toned than some others; sophisticated to the end, it closed a fabulously stimulating collection of music. Of course, there were inevitable encores, one expansive offering being essentially a musical tour of the Mediterranean. Fabulous!

Colin Clarke

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