The glittering mosaics that once adorned the walls of Hagia Eirene (the Church of the Holy Peace) have long since vanished but the playful light and colour that would once have filled this church came in musical form in this evening’s concert by the Amsterdam Sinfonietta at the Istanbul Music Festival.

Amsterdam Sinfonietta, Ferhan and Ferzan Önder
© Ali Guler

They began with the first four Contrapuncti from Bach’s The Art of Fugue, the first detached and understated, full of air and space, and the second feather-light, with elegance in the syncopations. The Amsterdam Sinfonietta is a string ensemble of around 25 players, and works without a conductor so it was fascinating to watch the communication and trust between the players on the stage, within sections and across the ensemble.

The third began with solos, with the other members of each section gradually drifting in to join the music but always keeping it quiet and intimate. The last of the set was quite extraordinary. The whole movement was played with a sweetly delicate pizzicato, reminiscent of a lute stop on a harpsichord. Then I started to hear the occasional bit of singing, at first so subtle that I thought I’d imagined it, but no, some of the players were quietly singing along, and the piece ended with the whole orchestra humming their final chord. The Art of Fugue can become weighed down with seriousness, but instead the Amsterdam Sinfonietta treated it affectionately, like an old friend.

The orchestra was then joined by twin-sister pianists Ferhan and Ferzan Önder for Bach’s Concerto for two keyboards, BWV1060 and the second performance of a piece co-commissioned for the Istanbul Music Festival, Together Remember to Dance by the Bulgarian-born British composer Dobrinka Tabakova. I was initially not convinced by the Önder sisters: the Bach felt a little dry at first, but I warmed to them through the second and third movements. Their sensitive playing in the slow movement rolled gently onwards against pizzicato strings and birdsong in the background, bringing to mind the Holy Peace to which the building is dedicated, and the final movement was full of playful fire.

Ferhan & Ferzan Onder
© Ali Guler

Together Remember to Dance is a concerto for string orchestra, percussion and two pianos, with each of the three movements reflecting one word from the complete title, so the first “Together” had a sense of unity and wholeness to it, “Remember” was elegiac and the final movement was a wild dance. Tabakova’s music is distinctive without being intimidating: she uses minimalist repetitiveness to drive the music forwards, but always with plenty of colour and melody.

“Together” began with an almighty crashing chord from everyone before the pianos launched into forceful repeated patterns against held strings.The pianos tumbled down to their lowest notes and marimba and drum solos tinted the texture, and the overall impression, especially after the ephemeral Bach Contrapuncti was that this was music you could physically touch and see as well as hear. “Remember” swept through a dark nostalgia, with a haunting violin melody against broken piano chords. I was particularly conscious of the constant eye-contact and communication between the Önder sisters during this movement, particularly during their tender, carefully executed unison passages. The mood in “Remember” lightened towards the end, suggesting the arrival happier memories, and ready for the dance that followed. A rolling repeated motif quickly built up in the pianos, with insistent bell chimes and drums, high marimba notes, wild scales and a pounding beat, with snaps and bow crashes bringing it to an explosive ending.

After the brightness and excitement of the Bach and Tabakova, the second half of the concert felt like a bit of an afterthought. Arvo Pärt’s Fratres unfolded slowly and carefully, beginning with subdued and unsentimental playing that felt like an echo of the way they had played the first Bach Contrapunctus, before opening out, getting gradually richer and finally returning to the lightness and floating away into nothing.

Mahler’s arrangement of Beethoven’s String Quartet no. 11 in F minor suited the ensemble nicely: by working without a conductor, the players combined the intimacy of chamber music with the richer sound of the full string orchestra very effectively. There was an enjoyably lyrical viola solo in the second movement and the final two movements, characterised by big statements and dynamic contrast blossomed in the rather dry acoustic. After its serious opening, the final movement took off like a tightly coiled spring and the sprightly coda recalled the playfulness of the first half.

There were well-chosen encores to both halves of the concert: the Önder sisters followed the Tabakova with a steamy performance of Astor Piazzolla’s Libertango, accompanied by a hand drum and clapping, and the Sinfonietta rounded off with a lively arrangement by Quatuor Ebène of Misirlou, a Middle-Eastern folk song best known from the soundtrack of Pulp Fiction.