Turkey is on the periphery when we think of Western classical music, but this most European of Muslim countries occasionally makes its mark. The acclaimed soprano Leyla Gencer was Turkish, and the noted basso buffo Fernando Corena was born in Switzerland to a Turkish family. Less prominent, however, are Turkish composers who write in classical music style, although the pianist Fazil Say is also an inventive, highly accomplished composer—see my review elsewhere in this issue. Otherwise, I couldn’t name another Turkish composer until the present release came my way.
The repertoire for solo violin couldn’t be more distinguished, what with Bach’s six Sonatas and Partitas as its wellspring. In direct reference to him, the extremely impressive violinist Ellen Jewett begins with Violin Partita by the long-lived Adnan Saygun, who was born in 1907 and died in 1991. The four-movement suite nods to Bach overtly only by titling the first movement Preludio. It is difficult to write traditional solo violin music that discovers more techniques than those employed by Bach, but Saygun, composing in 1961, had the Romanticism of Sarasate and Ysaÿe to draw upon, along with modern harmonies.
These influences are apparent in Violin Partita through its contrasting Romantic atmosphere and melodic contours that feel modern, including dissonant double-stops that would have been harmonically foreign to Bach. Yet in its dignity and purity, the piece adroitly balances two musical worlds. Without sounding like pastiche neo-Baroque à la Respighi, Saygun imparts Bachian stature to the solo violin. Jewett plays with remarkable presence, flawless technique, and the kind of brio that rivets the listener’s attention in a piece that lasts nearly half an hour.
The other two works on the program are by contemporary Turkish composers. Onur Türkmen’s Beautiful and Unknown is a model of Postmodern aesthetics, in that the traditional avant-garde is taken for granted and its once revolutionary sounds are now part of everyday language. The listener needs to fall in line with this acceptance of scraping, shrieking, jittery, and anxious sounds from the violin. The music is totally free form, and one wouldn’t suspect its historical-pictorial origins. As the composer explains in the booklet note, the work was commissioned by Jewett, who runs a summer music festival in Cappadocia, the central arid region of Turkey.
Speaking of what inspired him, Türkmen writes, “[Jewett] suggested that the piece could imply the theme ‘The Land of the Beautiful Horses’, which relates to the meaning of Cappadocia’s given name in the 6th century BC during the Persian invasion. This theme not only stimulated particular images in my mind, but also suited my artistic and compositional aims well.” Around these associations Türkmen has created a dream-like piece that is also quite harsh at times (the violin sounds electronically amplified to me, although nothing is mentioned in that regard).
In a real sense Türkmen has expanded the vocabulary of international Postmodernism, because as he explains it, his compositional technique refers to a traditional Turkish calligraphic term, hat, or line, which leads to many cultural ramifications. Jewett also commissioned Mahir Cetiz’s Soliloquy, which the composer describes in simple terms as being musically parallel to a theatrical soliloquy of the “To be or not to be” kind. But his simplicity is a bit of a misdirect, because Cetiz’s idiom, often on the verge of silence with significant pauses, spectral whispers, and mysterious atmosphere, is if anything more radical than Türkmen’s. However, it too belongs in the framework of international Postmodernism. You might think of this piece not so much as a soliloquy from Hamlet but from the ghost, his father, wandering a nether world of haunted, restless existence.
One cannot overstate how amazingly varied Jewett’s playing is; she is called upon to perform prodigious things by the two contemporary composers, which she makes sound all but effortless. It’s a shame, really, that this release is titled Turkish Music for Solo Violin, which implies something traditional and folkish. What hides behind the title is exceptionally intriguing music performed at the highest level of virtuosity