La Sublime Porte
Reviewed March, 2012.
Apparently our children think yoghurt grows on trees, so they are probably some distance from knowing that the product originally came from Turkey. The systematic debasement of Muslim culture – of the non-yoghurt variety – from within by extremists and without by propagandists means we know too little of its contribution to the human experience. Five hundred years ago Istanbul was reportedly a city of peerless beauty, containing a thriving, essentially harmonious multiculturalist, multi-faith society, and vast artistic riches. Among these was music.
Jordi Savall, that Spanish maestro of multiple stringed instruments, is a modern-day Odysseus who has taken his Hesperion XXI ensemble on many pan-Mediterranean musical adventures, as well as ranging farther afield. His time-travelling has been even greater in scope, and here he opens a door on to the musical treasures of Istanbul between 1430 and 1750.
The capital of the Ottoman Empire was known as “La Sublime Porte” (“Gateway to Happiness”), such was its beneficence. Like the city, the music was a melting pot, drawing on Greek, Sephardic and Armenian traditions, besides the Ottoman ones. Savall has augmented his already-multinational ensemble with virtuosos on the requisite traditional instruments, so that no less than 10 countries from across Europe and the Middle East are represented in the ranks.
The music moves between stately grandeur and raw emotionalism. Even with up to 16 players at work simultaneously it has extraordinary buoyancy and gracefulness, thanks the textural lightness of the assembled strings, woodwinds and percussion. Savall is masterful at layering these with inestimable subtlety, so that behind Gursoy Dincer’s astounding singing on a traditional Ottoman piece, for instance, there is the barest whisper of percussion and strings.
Also singing on two pieces is Savall’s wife, the superb soprano Montserrat Figueras, just months before her tragic death. She pours her luminosity into two Sephardic songs, the first in a dialogue with the Israeli singer Lior Elmaleh. Both will stand as lasting memorials to her glorious artistry.
Whether Savall’s ensemble exactly replicates how this music would have sounded hundreds of years ago cannot be known, and is not even the real point, despite the assiduous research he has undertaken. Savall’s intentions are not academic, but creative. Armed with what can be gleaned from the available notated music and with the finest players he can muster he has realised gorgeous living music; sounds that speaks to us now, while opening a door on a sumptuous past. It is improbable that this material was ever played with more skill, commitment, empathy and passion.
As with all Alia Vox releases, the production values and presentation (including enthralling liner notes) equal the endless care that has gone into rendering the music. It will illuminate modern minds and hearts, just as it once did the cultured souls at the court of Sultan Mehmed II and his successors. A rare masterpiece.