The Istanbul Music Festival is an international event, but it also showcases Turkish talents along with its visiting performers. This concert did exactly that, presenting a quartet of cellists from the Berlin Philharmonic, Cello4Berlin, alongside four cellists from Turkey, the ensemble Çelistanbul, plus guest soloist Dorukhan Doruk. The programme, mainly of popular classics arranged for cellos, proved ideal, as did the various groupings of players from the two ensembles, to provide an entertaining and satisfying varied programme.

Identifying musical differences between the two ensembles proved difficult. Standards were uniformly high, but the Berlin players seemed to have a little more edge and focus to their tone. The warm acoustic of the Hagia Eirene brought an ethereal glow to the combined cello sound, blurring some of the detail in the instruments’ lower registers, but allowing melodies on the upper strings to sing out gracefully.

The concert began with an eight-cello arrangement of Bach’s Jesu meine Freude, the Berlin cellists to the left, the Turkish players to the right. In a show of progressive unity, this arrangement was adapted throughout the evening, and by the end the octet was seated in alternating positions. Much of the music on the programme had been arranged by David Riniker, one of the Berlin players, for cello quartet, and so the eight-player group often doubled parts, but, again, never to the detriment of the ensemble or balance. Clearly, all of these players have much orchestral experience, and the discipline they brought to this extended chamber ensemble proved invaluable.

For much of the programme, the group was reduced, either to the one quartet or the other, or a varied combination of the two. The plaintive melody of Fauré’s Pavane sounded particularly elegant in these surroundings. Following with Fauré’s Sicilienne did the composer few favours, emphasising as it did the similarities between his two most famous melodies. All beautifully performed though, and in arrangements that made full use of elegant pizzicato techniques in the discreetly harmonised accompaniments. The Carmen Fantasy arranged by Werner Thomas-Mifune simply segues together the main melodies of the opera, but all sound convincing when performed by cello ensemble. The repeated notes of the Habanera at the opening reverberated around the church, while the melodies that followed all benefited from graceful ornamentation.

Çelistanbul opened the second half with Uzun Ince Bir Yoldayim, a folk-inspired melody by Âşık Veysel. This was the only Turkish work on the programme, sadly, but offered welcome local colour. The highlight of the second half was Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, the soloist Knut Weber accompanied by the Turkish ensemble. Weber gave a committed performance – expressive, plaintive, and beautifully graded in dynamic and tone. The Berlin players filled out the second half with a series of Lieder arrangements, presumably their stock in trade, but all convincing and never sounding routine. Dvořák’s Lasst mich allein earned its place though its famous quotation in his Cello Concerto, but this more direct rendering was equally effective, two cellos performing the melody in close harmony, the other two accompanying. Delibes’ Flower Duet from Lakmé was impressive too, the lightness of the harmonies never compromised by the arrangement to lower instruments.

Each half ended with a Bachianas Brasileiras from Villa-Lobos, the first half with no. 1, the second with no. 5. The sheer variety of textures that Villa-Lobos draws for the large cello ensemble is astonishing, and was well represented here. The unison bottom Cs at the end of no. 1 had a particularly weighty resonance in this acoustic. For no. 5, the cellists were joined by young Turkish soprano Barcu Hanci. Her tone is light, but with plenty of character, and she blended well with the cellos beneath, the balance ideal, even in the bocca chiusa coda. She also joined the cellists for an elegant arrangement of Handel’s Lascia chi’o pianga as an encore, before the players rounded the evening off with Stefan Wirth's Tango-Fugue on a Theme by Astor Piazzolla. A rousing end to spectacular evening.