The music on this disc is both haunting and poignant. Haunting because it’s characteristic of the tunes that come out of the blending of cultures represented here. Poignant because it’s one of the last recordings of singer Montserrat Figueras, wife of conductor Jordi Savall and a vital business and creative partner who helped make the family’s Alia Vox label a vital, reliable source of superior performances of repertory both familiar and exotic.
La Sublime Porte: Voix d’Istanbul revisits a time and place for which Savall and company previously produced a recording of instrumental music. Now we hear Ottoman, Greek, Sephardic and Armenian aspects of ancient Istanbul captured in song, using a similarly polyglot array of players and singers. Although technically a classical music recording, insofar as the pieces are drawn from manuscripts with much antiquity behind them, there’s a remarkable sense of immediacy in the performances. The Turkish songs, as performed by Gürsoy Dinçer, typically celebrate lovers’ pleas, and range from the highly structured to the improvised, all characterized by highly melismatic turns of melody.
The accompanying ensemble is largely Turkish, playing on period-appropriate instruments in what we can confidently guess is a period-appropriate style. Savall and percussionist Pedro Estevan, both Spanish, also give no hint that they’re anything but to the manner born.
Figueras performs a pair of Sephardic songs with a sweetly contrasting texture and an instrumental group filled out with players from Bulgaria, Greece, Armenia and Morocco. She’s joined on one number by Israeli singer Lior Elmaleh to give the 16th-century fable “There Passed That Way a Knight” a compelling twining of voices in the story of a nobleman who refuses the charms of a wayside woman. Among the instrumental numbers are works drawn from Dimitrie Cantemir’s 18th-century Book of the Science of Music, a collection of music written in and around Istanbul and the subject of an earlier Savall recording—which itself was a logical continuation of his album Orient-Occident, which mixed music from medieval Italy, Afghanistan, Turkey, Israel, Morocco and Persia—music that proves to have much in common.
One of the most appealing features of any of Savall’s recordings is the richly detailed booklet, giving both the political and musical history of the featured locale. The sounds remain strange to unaccustomed Western ears, but the music is a living, vital phenomenon guaranteed to enrich the curious listener.