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Ahmed Adnan SAYGUN (1907-1991)
Complete String Quartets
No. 1 Op. 27 (1947) [29:23]; No. 2 Op. 35 (1958) [30:39]; No. 3 Op. 43 (1966) [29:16]; No. 4 Op. 77 (1990, Fragment) [12:41]
Quatuor Danel
rec. Studio Stolberger Strasse, PG Musik WDR 3, Cologne, 1-4 December 2003, 20-22 September, 19 November 2004. DDD
CPO 999 923-2 [60:02 + 41:57]


Saygun, the most internationally regarded of the Turkish Five, grew up in Izmir, his mathematician father having founded the city’s National Library. Largely self-trained, he won a Turkish Ministry of Education scholarship to go to Paris in 1928, studying under d’Indy at the Schola Cantorum. Eight years later he collaborated with Bartók during his visit to Turkey, collecting and notating nomadic folk melodies from the Osmaniye neighbourhood of Adana, north of old Antioch. Voice of Atatürk’s Republican reforms, holding key administrative and advisory positions in the government and broadcasting sectors - he was also on the Executive of the International Folk Music Council - he taught pre-war at the Istanbul Municipal Conservatory, and post-war at the Ankara State Conservatory. Later, Bosphorus-based at Mimar Sinan University, he led a generation in composition and ethnomusicology. His legacy includes five operas, five symphonies, five concertos, four string quartets, and a quantity of piano music – as well as the 1942 oratorio Yunus Emre (focusing on the medieval folk poet, sufi, troubadour and humanist), admired by Tippett and conducted by Stokowski at a UN concert in New York in 1958 (performance tapes: Library of Congress, Call No LWO 7483, r35B3-36A2, preservation master).

CPO’s championship of his symphonies (999 819-2; 999 968-2; 777 043-2) and quartets is a courageous enterprise (see links below to reviews of previous discs).

Saygun’s output has for so many years been the exclusive domain of Turkish musicians that to find it now in the hands of young Europeans, placed in a universalising context, freed of propagandist, parochial labelling, can only be a good thing. Even the documentation of these CDs is independent. Not a Turkish name in sight - ipso facto no reference to Turkey’s leading Saygun authority, Emre Aracı, a diehard Anglophile whose book on the composer was published by Yapi Kredi Yayinlari, Istanbul, in 2001 (Ahmed Adnan Saygun: Doğu-Bati Arası Müzik Köprüsü ISBN 975-08-0228-4: link). Regrettable, surprising, though his absence is, Patricia Gläfcke’s detailed notes make excellent reading. She sees Saygun as ‘Preserver and Renewer’, a ‘universal talent’ between ‘tradition and innovation’. ‘His consideration of the folk transmission and traditional elements, as well as their innovative treatment and new further development,’ she says, ‘place him together with other European artists such as Béla Bartók and Manuel de Falla’. Endorsing Aracı’s view that he was the ‘musical bridge between East and West’, she maintains ‘he struck a balance between Eastern tradition and the Western stylistic stamp, between the inclusion of Turkish melodies and their treatment in Western idioms’– without, critically, ever stooping to ‘superficial collage’ populist style.

‘In his quartets’, Gläfcke believes, Saygun ‘is first and foremost a European and to be numbered among those who, very much conscious of their cultural heritage, regarded themselves as universal musicians and composers.’ Gravity-centred post-war statements steeped in German rigour leavened with Gallic elegance, their language moulded by Eastern Europe and the Orient, their world open to fantasy and narrative digression, to nostalgic/ironic flashback - Ottoman monody for instance - they comprise an astonishing body of works. Instinctive chamber music.

Imaginatively responsive to the chemistry and sonority of the medium, the First cuts a mature profile. Its final G major chord may leave events hanging in the air inconclusively, but for the rest there’s much to savour. The folkloristic variation Adagio, consummately scored, is especially affecting; likewise the Komitas-flavoured third movement with its atmospherically droned pentatonic trio, cello and viola in harmonics – a winning invention (1:33). The Turkish-rhythm finale with its splendid fugal offset (4:46) exhilarates. It must have saddened Saygun that, following the premiere in Paris by the Parrenins (23 October 1954), the first Turkish account had to wait thirty-six years, a few weeks before his death at the age of 83. The closest of the canon to Bartók, the Second Quartet ranges across intellectually denser, texturally more complex territory. Commissioned by the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation, first played in Washington by the Juilliard Quartet, programmed subsequently at the 1959 Edinburgh Festival, it offers muscle and argument. The second movement, with its hypnotic col legno cello ostinato, climaxes and pizzicati, the fugal exchanges of the finale (from 1:22), add up to quite a tour-de-force. ‘Thrilling’ felt George Day Thorpe, the Washington Evening Star’s critic at the premiere, Library of Congress, 28 November 1958. (NB: CPO’s booklet claim of 22 November squares with neither Aracı’s cataloguing nor newspaper reviews filed for the 29th). Saygun dedicated the Third Quartet to his Hungarian wife, Nilüfer. The string writing and nuances, the ‘conversational’ and imitative commentary, the rhythmic assuredness, the contrasting of slow and fast episodes, the mix of occident and orient - all carry his most emphatic signature. Could the passage at 9:20 of the first track be by anyone else? A meeting of 20th century vigours and string attacks, Shostakovich desolation, angry outbursts, late Beethoven introspection, old European harmonic oases, haunting solos (the Lento’s viola). Gläfcke thinks the piece ‘not entirely unproblematical’, ‘initially a little unwieldy’. That’s not my impression. (NB: CPO misleadingly idents one long first movement – Grave, contrary to the score – I Grave-Vivo, II Agitato). Like Haydn’s Op. 103, Saygun’s final effort was left unfinished, a two-movement slow/quick torso on which, Aracı confirms, he was still working at the time of his death, 6 January 1991. I warm to Gläfcke’s description of the swan-song second movement: ‘a bequest in the form of an invitation’, gifted with an ‘amused’ smile.

All credit to the Franco-Belgian Quatuor Danel, currently Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Manchester, for their belief in this music. Backed by classy production and engineering from Westdeutsche Rundfunk, they deliver readings of fabulous clarity, discipline and tonal character. Every slur and dot, each dynamic, all means of attack, phrasing and coloration, is here for the relishing. The unanimity of teamwork, the individuality of the solos, suggest a quartet that knows and likes itself, and isn’t shy about personality or projection. When it comes to the tricky unharmonised unison/octave writing Saygun indulges every so often, they could not be more confident - every intonation and awkward corner precision matched, each attack confident and dramatic.

In Nos. 1 and 3, following Bartókian precedent, Saygun indicated timings for each movement: ‘he was quite meticulous in that way,’ Aracı notes. Overall, the Danels favour slower speeds:                                  

No 1 Saygun 25:05  Quatuor Danel 29:23
No 3  Saygun 25:25 Quatuor Danel    29:16
No 2 [Aracı                19:30]  Quatuor Danel   30:39
No 4 [Aracı              11:30]  Quatuor Danel  12:41

As did, comparatively, the Anatolian String Quartet in their version of No 1 at 29:32 [Hungaroton HCD 31521, (p) 1992] – a performance so musically void, woefully played and poorly recorded, however, it should have come with a health warning. On balance, given the articulate speech and structured delivery that results, I have no problem accommodating the Danel’s decision.

Scores and parts of all four quartets are available from Peermusic (Germany) GmbH (link). The Bilkent University Saygun Archives in Ankara hold the manuscripts (link).

Ateş Orga


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Links to previous reviews in this series:

Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2
Symphony No. 4/Violin Concerto
Symphonies Nos. 3 & 5







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