30 September 2016

CD REVIEW: BALLO TURCO – from Venice to Istanbul (F. Lombardi Mazzulli, Pera Ensemble, M. C. Yeşilçay; Oehms Classics OC 1858 / OC 1860)

IN REVIEW: BALLO TURCO - From Venice to Istanbul (Oehms Classics OC 1858 / OC 1860)NEFIRI BEHRAM AĞA (? –  circa 1560), FABRITIO CAROSO (1527? – after 1605), BELLEROFONTE CASTALDI (1580? – 1649), ANTONIO CESTI (1623 – 1669), MARCO DA GAGLIANO (1582 – 1643), ANDREA FALCONIERI (1585? – 1656), JOHANN HIERONYMUS KAPSBERGER (1580 – 1651), BIAGIO MARINI (1594 – 1663), CLAUDIO MONTEVERDI (1567 – 1643), DERVIŞ FRENK MUSTAFA (? – ?), MICHAEL PRAETORIUS (1571 – 1621), LUIGI ROSSI (circa 1597 – 1653), SALOMONE ROSSI (circa 1570 – circa 1630), GIOVANNI FELICE SANCES (1600 – 1679), and ALI UFKÎ (né Wojciech Bobwski, 1610 – 1675): Ballo Turco – from Venice to IstanbulFrancesca Lombardi Mazzulli, soprano; Pera Ensemble; Mehmet C. Yeşilçay, conductor [Recorded in MIAM Studios, Istanbul, Turkey, in June 2014; Oehms Classics OC 1858; 1 CD (also available on 2 vinyl LPs, OC 1860), 62:37; Available from Oehms Classics (CD and LP), Naxos Direct (LP), jpc (CD / LP – Germany), and major music retailers]

​Despite the life- and world-changing technological advances that propelled civilization during the Twentieth Century into a modern wonderland that would have confounded Jules Verne’s imagination, the first sixteen years of the Twenty-First Century have often been troubled not by the problems of new inventions but by plagues wrought by humanity, dilemmas that should be eradicated or at least marginalized by today’s society’s ability to connect largely without delays or barriers. Damningly, compromise, cooperation, and diplomacy frequently seem to be last resorts rather than the foremost tools for reconciliation that logic would suggest them to be. Not even art and artists are immune to the perils of personal and global politics, nor have they ever been, but in an age in which chasms of time, distance, language, and customs can be lessened almost effortlessly there is crippling divisiveness at every turn. Ballo Turco – from Venice to Istanbul, this new Oehms Classics release featuring cross-cultural Pera Ensemble and intrepid Italian soprano Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli, rejoices in what is perhaps the most maddeningly simple mode of communication among divergent cultures: great music. Hardly the path of least resistance, sharing musical traditions comforts, consoles, challenges, and enlightens as few endeavors can do, artists’s egos submerged in the deluges of dialogue that their sounds produce. Here, the musical highway stretches from Venice to Istanbul, but it might just as readily link Adelaide to Addis Ababa or Dallas to Damascus. The Lebanese-born author and philosopher Khalil Gibran wrote that ‘music is the language of the spirit. It opens the secret of life, bringing peace, abolishing strife.’ Dancing into the ears, Ballo Turco makes discord impossible. Like the people who make it, music has many accents, but the joy that it can bring—and brings in every minute of Ballo Turco—is neither Turkish nor Italian, Muslim nor Christian, old nor new.

​The instrumental pieces that frame the vocal selections on Ballo Turco are perfect vehicles for the exploration and exhibition of the ideals that guide the adventures of Pera Ensemble and the group’s founder, Ud virtuoso Mehmet C. Yeşilçay. In the generations that followed the publication of Marco Polo’s Livre des merveilles du monde at the turn of the Fourteenth Century, European thinkers increasingly studied and embraced Eastern methodologies, learning from the examples of cultures that flourished whilst Europe languished in the Dark Ages. Like the Moors in northern Africa and Iberia, Ottoman artists, mathematicians, and scientists advanced their fields during a time in which critical thinking in Europe was largely confined to monastic communities. Pera Ensemble’s propulsive percussion plays a vital part in the performances on Ballo Turco: this is music that is felt, not merely heard, and the feeling with which it is played here is irresistible.

Under Yeşilçay’s dauntless leadership, the Pera Ensemble musicians raise a splendid clatter in the Ballo d’Eunuchi that ends Act One of Antonio Cesti’s 1657 opera La Dori: the band of eunuchs who dance in this music have charisma more than sufficient to compensate for more tangible parts that they may lack. Contrasted with musical and dramatic insightfulness by both composer and performers, Andrea Falconieri’s ‘La suave melodia,’ sounding uncannily like a Händel sarabande, and ‘Corriente dicha la Mota’ from Il libro primo di canzone, published in Naples in 1650, are delivered with brio that highlights the shifting moods of the music. Similarly, the clever melding of ‘La Moresque’ from Michael Praetorius’s Terpsichore with the familiar Moresca from Act Five of Claudio Monteverdi’s 1607 masterpiece L’Orfeo enhances the structural and thematic integrities of both pieces, qualities in the refinement of which Pera Ensemble’s members excel. Nothing is forced upon the music: these performances expose the taste of every Moorish spice with which the composers flavored their concoctions.

The plaintiveness that lurks beneath the extroverted surface of Johannes Hieronymus Kapsberger’s Ciaccona from Libro IV d’intavolatura di chitarrone bursts into view in Pera Ensemble’s performance, the lilting principal subject complemented by metrical tautness that conveys the restlessness that gives the Ciaccona its distinctive momentum. The skill with which Yeşilçay simultaneously emphasizes both the qualities that differentiate each composer featured on Ballo Turco from the others and those that link them is an essential component of the realization of this recording’s primary goal. This is particularly apparent in Biagio Marini’s Sinfonia terzo tuono from his Opus 22 collection published in Venice in 1655 under the title Per ogni sorte di strumento musicale diversi generi di sonate, da chiesa, e da camera. Performed with imagination that gives this ‘old’ music an astonishingly new sound, the piece unmistakably closes the distance between Eastern and Western musical traditions, revealing the artistic kinship between Istanbul and Venice to be very close.

Born in Europe as Wojciech Bobowski, Ali Ufkî became one of his adopted Ottoman Empire’s most influential scholars and musicians, his Mecmua-i Sâz ü Söz still recognized as one of the seminal works of Ottoman art. As played here, Ufkî’s ‘Askin ile’ leaves no doubts of its composers’ gifts or dedication to the musical traditions of the culture in which he immersed himself. His ‘Rehavi Semai,’ also drawn from Mecmua-i Sâz ü Söz, is equally effective on its own merits and as an example of the cooperative spirit that is the defining ethos of Ballo Turco. Just as the music blends sounds from opposite shores of the Mediterranean, Pera Ensemble’s playing epitomizes the synthesis of virtuosity and open-mindedness.

Salomone Rossi’s Gagliarda prima detta la Turca, one of the pieces assembled in Il terzo libro de varie sonate, sinfonie, gagliarde, brandi e corrente during the decade extending from 1613 to 1623, receives from Pera Ensemble a reading that entices like the piquant aromas of Turkish sumac and çörek otu tossed with Venetian bigołi. The sharp rhythms of the music punctuate the performance arrestingly. This is true, too, of the musicians’ performance of their integration of Ufkî’s Pişrev-i efrenci yani pavane with Fabritio Carosoî’s Balleto Pauaniglia and the Pavane de Spaigne from Praetorius’s Terpsichore. Ethnic and aesthetic boundaries are here wholly obliterated, and what remains is the purest essence of music. The stylistic harmony achieved in this amalgamation of music from three vastly different traditions resoundingly validates the concept of Ballo Turco: no matter how great the differences may seem, the shortest path between two points—or, more accurately, points of view—is music.

​In the impassioned strains of Giovanni Felice Sances’s ‘Usurpator tiranno della tua libertà sia Lilla altrui,’ Lombardi Mazzulli unveils her sumptuous voice with the sensuality of a Raqesah, her tones gliding evocatively through the music like the flexing muscles of a dancer’s body. ‘Lasciate Averno, o pene, e me seguite!’ from Luigi Rossi’s opera Orfeo might have been composed to order for Lombardi Mazzulli, whose Euridice in Ferdinando Bertoni’s 1776 setting of the same libretto by Ranieri de’ Calzabigi used by Gluck in his 1762 Orfeo ed Euridice, recorded in performance in Ferrara and released on CD by the fra bernardo label, established her as one of today’s preeminent exponents of that episode in mythology in even its most unfamiliar operatic incarnations. She navigates the intricacies of Rossi’s music fearlessly, every embellishment of the vocal line presented with absolute conviction and heightened sensitivity to its contribution to the interpretation of the words. Ballo Turco’s core principles also shine in Lombardi Mazzulli’s singing of Bellerofonte Castaldi’s ‘Chi vidde più lieto e felice di meî.’ Echoing Pera Ensemble’s merging of cultures with her own intuitive scrutiny of the felicities of the composer’s marriage of music and text, the soprano’s vocalism makes Rossi’s demanding vocal lines sound grippingly spontaneous.

Introduced by rhythmically crisp accounts of his Sinfonia à tre and Ballo Grande à tre from the same source, ‘O felici fortunate’ from Marco da Gagliano’s Ballo di Donne Turche emerges as one of the most enjoyable selections on Ballo Turco owing to the exciting performance that it receives from Lombardi Mazzulli and Pera Ensemble. The interactions among instruments and voice are effectuated with extraordinary​ eloquence, the integrity of the piece maintained and even enhanced by the innovative handling that the music receives from singer and instrumentalists. Dating from the Sixteenth Century, the anonymous ‘Canto dell’egizia Fatima’ is sung by Lombardi Mazzulli with undeviating dramatic focus, every word of the emotionally-charged text deeply and truly expressed without a single syllable being over-accentuated. The soprano’s technical mastery of music of this vintage is remarkable, her execution of the Early Baroque trillo that eludes most singers earning special admiration, but no less praiseworthy is the way in which she strips away every modicum of artifice in pursuit of total emotional honesty. Raw emotions occasionally require raw sounds, and Lombardi Mazzulli complies with an abandon that comes only from the certainty of complete preparedness.

The brilliant clarity of Lombardi Mazzulli’s enunciation of texts is an integral element of her artistry, and the natural grace of her management of words is the pedestal upon which her stirring performances of Derviş Frenk Mustafa’s ‘Murabba’ and Nefiri Behram Ağa’s ‘Bayati peşrev’ are erected. The vocal lines driven by the singer’s vowels, the provocative harmonies of these pieces shimmer spectacularly in the bright glow of Pera Ensemble’s playing. Lombardi Mazzulli never gives the impression of being a patently European Konstanze or Zaide trying out Turkish garb for her own amusement or benefit. Figuratively joining hands with Yeşilçay and her Pera Ensemble colleagues, she ventures courageously into this music. The success of the enterprise is apparent in the fact that these are selections—and Ballo Turco a recording—that stimulates senses and sensibilities in unexpected and perspective-altering ways.

When new recordings seek to convey specific messages to today’s listeners, what they communicate is too often a statement of arrogance rather than advocacy.​ A recording like Ballo Turco could all too easily have been a didactic exercise in lecturing listeners on how they should react to the relationships among musical, but this release focuses on allowing listeners to reach their own conclusions, informed by performances guided not by pedagogy but by unwavering belief in the music’s power to transcend cultural differences. The performances by Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli, Mehmet C. Yeşilçay, and Pera Ensemble on Ballo Turco transcend the kind of faceless, impersonal music-making that disfigures so many of today’s recordings. The American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow proclaimed music the universal language, and it is a tongue that Ballo Turco speaks with riveting fluency: rather than ‘from Venice to Istanbul,’ Ballo Turco might have been subtitled ‘from our hearts to yours.’