Samatya, in the Fatih district of Istanbul, was where we would walk the Istanbul Music Festival’s “Music Route”: four concerts, four ensembles, four different churches. Samatya borders the Marmara sea, rather than the Bosphorous, and its streets have the gentle perfume of anise, coffee, and grilling fish. It’s a neighbourhood that has been home to not just Turks but Armenian and Greek migrants, whose roots are now firmly set here, represented by the schools and cafes we would pass when ambling from church to church.

We start in the Dormition of Theotokos Panagia Alimermer, a Greek Orthodox church, to hear Vivid Consort perform secular song and polyphony. Vivid are made up of Christine Gnigler, Lorina Vallaster, and Sheng-Fang Chiu, who swap between voice and baroque recorders of various sizes, and offered us a programme of Byrd, Gibbons, Ciconia, amongst plenty others.

Vivid Consort © Ali Guler
Vivid Consort
© Ali Guler

Polyphony felt like the right place to start. It’s an apt metaphor for the intertwined strands of religion, ethnicity and culture from which Istanbul is woven, a meeting point for different lines of thought and ways of life, lines which sometimes harmonise and sometimes clash. It’s a metaphor that was made vividly real during the concert, as the afternoon call to prayer drifted across William Byrd’s The Eagles Force. It’s a bittersweet experience to hear this music and be reminded of Istanbul’s contrapuntal history. The city’s polyphonic vitality – reflected, I’d like to think, in the bravura virtuosity of the Gibbons Galliard that opened the programme or Bateson’s quicksilver Come Follow Me, Fair Nymphs – is under greater stress than ever from an incipient nationalist climate and reactive political regime.

The warm reverberation of the church heightens the fragile, keening melancholy of many of these songs, particularly in Eustache du Caurroy’s Une jeune Fillette, about a young girl forced to take religious orders and forego love. Playing secular music in a sacred space has its complexities, to be sure, but here the acoustic intensified the exquisite otherworldliness of this music, and the doleful loneliness at the heart of these songs.

Saygun Quartet © Ali Guler
Saygun Quartet
© Ali Guler

The second stop lead us downhill, deeper into the neighbourhood, past the Armenian schools and Greek cafes that represent its diverse legacy. An Armenian Catholic church, Surup Anarad Hiǧutyun, hosted the young and Turkish Saygun Quartet. Alongside three lush Romantic miniatures from Armenian composer Komitas, full of Dvořákian dancing, we heard the first string quartet of the Turkish modernist composer who gives the performer their name, Ahmet Adnan Saygun.

A glowering opening gives way to highly expressionistic music, with hints of Bartók, early Ligeti, sometimes Schoenberg. The harmonic language is often modal, pulling out its folk influences, and its lyricism – particularly in a divine slow movement – often alien and moonlit. The final movement is an extraordinary summary of these influences, reminiscent in theme and style of Beethoven’s late Große Fuge, but also the jagged, warped rhythms of Bartók; its contrapuntal ferocity is smoothed out by warm harmonies that could be straight from Janáček.

Through more narrow streets and past bleached white walls to the Greek Saints Constantine and Helen Orthodox Church, to hear the Dutch Ensemble Lumaka, made up of flute, cello, harp and violin, whose programme was mostly French. Trios from Joseph Jongen and Jacques Ibert were full of light and air, the sound suspended in the gentle afternoon sunlight; Ravel’s Sonatine for cello, flute and harp followed, with a diaphanous last movement that seemed to radiate out from the golden halos of the icons around the altar.

Lumaka Ensemble © Ali Guler
Lumaka Ensemble
© Ali Guler

We closed out with an unusual arrangement of Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances. Less grungy than usual, we heard a more playful and wily Bartók. In its slower moments the arrangement underlined the delicacy of Bartók’s melodies and phrases, whose mercurial, feline character couldn’t help but remind one of the famous cats of Istanbul, who sauntered on the warm cobblestones outside.

Rezonans are a striking Turkish choir, conducted by the poised Burak Onur Erdem, who specialise in contemporary choral repertory, performing a cappella a selection of thrilling new Turkish vocal works in Narlikapi Surp Hovannes, the Armenian Orthodox Church that was our last stop, on the Marmara coast. Rezonans delight in works that demand unusual and adventurous vocal techniques, whether in the great microtonal, Ligeti-esque agonies of Lorenzo Donati’s Noche, or the skin-crawling hissing and whispers of Wolfram Buchenberg’s Erbarme Dich Unser.

The intense spareness of this particular space, with bare and undecorated stone walls, ramps up the intensity of this equally raw unaccompanied music. This was especially true in the final work, Edwin London’s Bach (Again), in which the chorus sing the opening phrases of his chorale Komm, Süßer Tod, but then, in its final phase fragment and diverge, slowing and spreading. It creates an astonishing vocal texture, bright and vast, in an agonising, transcendent vision of infinity.

Benjamin's press trip was sponsored by the Istanbul Music Festival.