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Turkish Music for Solo Violin
Ahmet Adnan SAYGUN (1907-1991)
Violin Partita Op.36 (1961) [27:48]
Onur TÜKMEN (b.1972)
Beautiful and Unowned (2013, revised 2017) [19:45]
Mahir CETIZ (b.1977)
Soliloquy (2016) [17:27]
Ellen Jewett (violin).
rec. 2017, Chez Galip, Cappadocia, Turkey
Premiere recording (Saygun)
NAXOS 8.579043 [65:08]

The American violinist Ellen Jewett has taken a particular interest in the ‘classical’ music of Turkey, though by no means exclusively so. She was a member of the highly regarded American Ensemble, the Audubon Quartet, for some eleven years (c.2000-c.2011). Naturally, this meant that she played the central String Quartet repertoire as well as quite a number of new works by – mainly- American composers. Both as a member of the Audubon Quartet and in other musical contexts, Jewett worked with a number of significant composers, including Philip Glass, John Harbison and Joan Tower.  I haven’t been able to establish exactly when her connection with the classical ‘world’ in Turkey began, but I do know that she spent some time as a concertmaster of Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra and also worked with the Bilkent Symphony Orchestra in Ankara. She was the founder and remains the Artistic Director (since c.2009/2010) of the annual festival Klasik Keyifler held in the beautiful and fascinating region of Cappadocia. Bringing together composers, experienced and young musicians, Klasik Keyifler organizes concerts which are often held in unusual venues, such as Byzantine churches, caves, town squares and Ottoman madresas. So, for example, the August 2018 Festival included music by Kodaly, Janacek and Robert Schumann in the Seraphim Cave Hotel, Mutapaşa, the two works by Onur Tükmen and Mahir Cetiz recorded on this CD in a recital in the Hotel Aya Kapadokya in Urgup, a free children’s concert, a number of solo harp recitals, a Debussy recital in a museum and much, much more!

The major work on this CD of Turkish compositions for solo violin is the Violin Partita by Ahmet Adnan Saygun. Saygun was a central figure in the development of ‘western’ classical music in Turkey after Kemal Ataturk’s establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. As first President of the Republic, Ataturk was determined to make it a ‘modern’ state (which inevitably meant making it, in many ways, a ‘western’ state). This was true, for example, of his introduction of a Latin script for Turkish, replacing the Arabic script previously used in the Ottoman Empire, which had the grave disadvantage, culturally speaking, of cutting many Turks off from their own literary heritage of earlier centuries. Analogously, though less damagingly, Ataturk sought to encourage a ‘new’ music, set apart from, in the words of Ellen Jewett in her booklet essay, “the Ottoman past”. Jewett tells us that Ataturk regarded “Ottoman-influenced Turkish music” as “degenerate and corrupt with its Arabic influences”. Writing in 1922, Ziya Gögalp, a poet, philosopher and political ideologue who became a cultural adviser to Ataturk’s government, presented a formula for the future of Turkish music: “Our national music … is to be born from a synthesis of our folk music and Western music. Our folk music provides us with a rich treasury of melodies. By collecting and arranging them on the basis of Western musical technique, we shall have both a national and modern music”.

Saygun’s father had a love of traditional Sufi music, and the future composer was made familiar with that tradition, as well as receiving a thoroughly western education, including music. He was born and brought up in Izmir on the western coast of Anatolia, a city which in the years of his childhood had a substantial Greek population (the Greco-Turkish war of 1919-22 was to prove disastrous for the Greeks living in Izmir). The young Saygun benefited from Ataturk’s encouragement of western music; a presidential scholarship enabled him to study in Paris between 1928 and 1931, where one of his teachers was Vincent D’Indy. Saygun was, thus, eminently suited to adopt the ideal of a new ‘modern’ Turkish music as outlined by Gökalp and endorsed by Ataturk. So much so, indeed, that Kathryn Woodard (in ‘Music Mediating Politics in Turkey: The Case of Ahmed Adnan Saygun’, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Volume 27:3, 2007) describes Saygun as “a figurehead of Turkish Nationalism”. His familiarity with the music his father loved and introduced to him, plus his Parisian training made him well fitted to create the kind of music Gökalp and Atatuk wanted. His Opus 1 – a Divertimento for orchestra, saxophone and darbuka (a traditional drum) – is dated 1930. His first opera, in one act, Öszoy was premiered in Ankara in 1934.

Alongside his work as a composer, Saygun was active in the teaching of western music in Turkey and in the study of folk music. In 1936 Béla Bartók was invited to Ankara, to lecture, to perform and to conduct research on Turkish folk music. In the field trips he made, mostly in Southern Anatolia, Saygun acted as Bartók’s interpreter and notated much of the music for him. Forty years later, Saygun’s book – an account of Bartók’s visit – Béla Bartók’s Folk Music Research in Turkey was published in Budapest.

Saygun’s connection with Bartók might easily lead one to assume that he wrote a four-movement work for solo violin primarily under the Hungarian composer’s influence. Some such influence doubtless existed (Bartók’s work dates from 1944 and Saygun’s from 1961), but the very title of Saygun’s composition – Violin Partita – suggests, rather, that Saygun had Bach at the front of his mind. While Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin were not, chronologically speaking, the first works to be written for unaccompanied violin, they have certainly been the most influential such works, especially in the twentieth century. In calling his work a partita and giving its first movement the title ‘Preludio’ – a name it shares with the first movement of Bach’s third partita.

Although composed almost forty years after Gökalp’s words about the ‘new’ Turkish music – “to be born from a synthesis  of our folk music and Western music” in which the melodies of Turkish folk music were to be ‘arranged’ “on the basis of Western musical technique” – Saygun’s Violin Partita might, initially, seem to be a fulfilment of  Gökalp’s words. So it is, but not in any merely formulaic fashion, being full of imagination and personality. The opening ‘Preludio’ has, as that of quite a few baroque partitas, something of the improvisational about it. Here there is a clear indebtedness to the Turkish concept and practice of taksim – improvisation in a free-meter, a common feature of solo instrumental music in the Turkish tradition.  The ‘scherzo’ which follows befits the western title; in what corresponds to the ‘trio’ section of a scherzo, Saygun makes use of the zeybak, a dance common in the folk music of Izmir, where the composer was born, which celebrates bravery and heroism. In the long third movement – which, in terms of playing time is half of the whole work – the theme on which Saygun writes a number of variations is a version of a Turkish makam, a kind of melodic pattern, this particular one being the Segâh makam, which is often associated with mysticism (its choice perhaps reflects the Sufi traditions to which the composer was introduced by his father). The rapid and energetic ‘Finale’ echoes, Jewett tells us, a folk dance called a horon, a circle dance common to the Black Sea regions of Turkey and often danced to the accompaniment of a solo kamancheh – the member of the violin family regularly played in Turkey and Iran. Saygun’s choice has, thus, a particular aptness to this work. 

Saygun’s Violin Partita is, thus, rich in traditional Turkish elements. But it is also thoroughly European. Saygun’s composition is entirely couched in the western system of pitch – making no use of microtones. And, while the work, as suggested above has some affinities with its famous Bachian predecessors, much in its musical language is redolent of European romanticism, so often expressive of nationalistic ideals. Saygun also demands of the performer double-stopping and dissonances which would have been wholly alien to Bach. All of this may make the work sound like an over rich soup made of excessively heterogeneous ingredients. But that isn’t actually the experience of listening to the piece. It coheres, because all the ‘ingredients’ are unified by the importance they hold in the composer’s own musical experience and imagination and because of the disciplined way in which he combines them. There is a dignified unity to the work which allows it to respect both Turkish and ‘European’ elements. The music combines ‘Asia’ and ‘Europe’ as readily as Istanbul itself does, where a ferry takes one (very cheaply), back and forth across the Bosphorus from one continent to the other – the journey, I remember, takes little more than fifteen minutes each way, so close are the two. The combination of Turkish and European musical languages seems, in such a context, utterly natural – indeed historically inescapable.

Saygun’s Violin Partita is a very fine work and Jewett makes an outstanding case for it. If you don’t want to risk your money on purchasing the CD, try to hear the searchingly beautiful third movement on one of the streaming services and I suspect that you may well want to get hold of the whole thing.

The other two works on this disc are rather different and, to my ears and mind at least, also rather less rewarding. Both works – Onur Türkmen’s Beautiful and Unowned and Mahir Cetiz’s Soliloquy – were commissioned by Ellen Jewett. Türkmen’s composition uses much traditional Turkish material, employing a number of Turkish makams in succession; each, in the words of the composer’s booklet notes “melt[ing] into each other”. Apart from this ‘formal’ quality, Beautiful and Unowned also has a programmatic dimension, being evocative of Cappadocia’s spectacular landscape, in terms both of its natural features and its unique architecture, such as its underground ‘cities’ and so-called ‘fairy chimneys’ (tall spire-shaped rocks thrusting up from the earth. Türkmen writes of his composition – “my personal memories about Cappadocia … cannot be separated from collective memories inherited in ... the unique dreamlike atmosphere that exhibits remote layers of time concretely in its shockingly eclectic architecture (both human and nature-made) and landscapes. I believe that this what Beautiful and Unowned is about”. My experience of Cappadocia is insufficient to comment on the ‘accuracy’ of Türkmen’s musical evocation, but I can say that this composition is full of mystery and magic and a sense of remoteness both spatial and temporal, of a world primeval yet occupied. Jewett’s playing is, once more, of the very highest order, as passionate as it is disciplined, as virtuosic as it is free of self-regard.

Soliloquy by Mahir Cetiz has less about it that is recognizably or distinctively Turkish (to my ears, at least). Born in Ankara, Cetiz initially studied cello, piano and conducting at the Hacateppe State Conservatory. He also studied composition with Istemihan Taviloğlu and Turgay Erdener, before continuing his studies in the USA. In the late 1990s he studied at the University of Memphis with Kamran Ince and Chen Yi and then spent two years in the UK, at the Royal Northern College of Music. Since 2003 he has taught at Bilkent University in Ankara and also at Columbia University in New York. His works have been performed by, amongst others, the BBC Philharmonic and Ensemble Intercontemporain, and presented at such festivals of contemporary music as Huddersfield and the Berlin Young Euro Classics. Soliloquy is a passionate series of dramatic utterances – I call it a ‘series’ since I cannot hear much sense of coherent development. I find myself listening to it, with a certain pleasure, as a series of statements without any obvious logical connection, save a persuasive feeling of emotional conviction. I was pleased to see that in his note for the booklet of this CD, Cetiz confirms my sense of things(as I usually do, I listened to this CD before reading the notes provided) since he writes of his score that “the order of musical ideas and their relationship gives an impression of free associations”. Jewett’s powerful performance accepts this fluidity of ‘thought’ and makes the most of the kinds of timbral variety Cetiz deploys in moments of repetition and cross-reference. Interesting, but less memorable than either Türkmen’s Beautiful and Unowned or, especially, Saygun’s Violin Partita.

Throughout all three pieces Ellen Jewett’s playing is of the highest order. This is unfamiliar music and she is remarkably successful in communicating its nature and its qualities to the listener. (I happen to have listened to a fair bit of traditional Turkish music, both in situ and recorded, but this isn’t a necessary preparation for the enjoyment of this Naxos disc).  Jewett is helped by a distinctive and attractive recorded sound, the recordings having been made, according to Naxos, in one of Cappadocia’s many hand-carved caverns.

Glyn Pursglove

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