If you wanted to travel to Istanbul in style at the beginning of the 20th century, you would take the Orient Express from Paris, and at the end of your luxurious train journey across Europe, you would take a short trip across the Golden Horn from the station to stay in Istanbul’s first luxury hotel, the Pera Palace. To entertain these fashionable Europeans, Turkish musicians developed a new style of light music, repackaging and refining traditional Turkish and gypsy music to make it easy on the European ear. This new music also reflected Turkey’s new openness and responsiveness to European culture, and it has remained popular with Turkish audiences ever since.

Meral Azizoğlu © Ali Guler
Meral Azizoğlu
© Ali Guler

The Istanbul Music Festival likes to take music out of traditional concert halls and to explore the city’s abundant and varied historical buildings, so to link the music to those Orient Express passengers, this evening’s concert by the Turkish singer Meral Azizoğlu and an ensemble of Hungarian string players was held on the platform of the old Sirkeci Station, the terminus of the Orient Express.

It was easy to imagine how the music we heard tonight would have delighted those European travellers, as it met all the expectations for gypsy music: fiendishly virtuosic violin playing, a percussive bass line, a touch of local colour from the cimbalon – a flat stringed instrument, played with hammers – and sultry vocals. Many of the songs began with improvisatory and fiery instrumental passages: Gönlum Sensiz Olmaz by Ahmet Şefik Gürmeriç was a highlight here. For Yıldızların Altında (Under the Stars) by Ali Riza Bey, an elaborate cimbalon solo captured the starlit night of the song, although unfortunately over-amplification robbed it of its delicate effect. Another piece by Ali Riza Bey, Denizde Akşam with its tango rhythm brought to mind the later gypsy-jazz sound of Stephane Grappelli.

© Ali Guler
© Ali Guler

Meral Azizoğlu’s creamy and refined mezzo voice would probably have gone down well with the guests at the Pera Palace too: she had a well-supported and full tone, with an expressive vibrato and although I had no idea what any of the songs were about, there was plenty of communication and engagement with the audience that was at times conversation and at others outrageously flirtatious. Although it wouldn’t have been practical in this venue that was effectively in the open-air, I would really like to have heard her singing without amplification, because where I was sitting the sound was at times too loud for comfort, and I suspect didn’t do justice to her voice. Either the sound was modified or I got used to it, because it felt better towards the end of the concert, and I particularly enjoyed the waltz-like Benin Gönlüm Bir Kelebek by Refil Fersan, with its  long sustained lines and ornamentation that was somewhere between a trill and a very wide vibrato.

© Ali Guler
© Ali Guler

It was clear from the audience reaction that many of these songs were well-known, particularly (as one might expect) as the concert drew to a close. The seductive Siyah Gözlere by Mustafa Şükrü Alpar seemed particularly popular with those around me, and Necip Celal Andel’s Çok Uzakta that followed had a long tremulant build-up to an emotionally-charged vocal line. The anonymous Üsküdar’a Gider Íken closed the concert: all the musicians put away their music, and the audience joined in, singing, clapping and swaying with irresistable enjoyment.

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