If there’s one glowing aspect missing from the burgeoning classical music scene in Istanbul, it is chamber music. The city has been a host to an increasingly diverse range of musical performances and festivals in the last few years, thanks to rather effective sponsorship arrangements, as well as small organizations, and sometimes even individuals, taking charge in organizing concert series.

Church of St Anthony of Padua, Istanbul
Church of St Anthony of Padua, Istanbul

Opus Amadeus International Chamber Music Festival, in its second season, is one such event that is invested in chamber music alone. The organization, headed by Mr Mehmet Mestci and Artisan Art, has been active in running music festivals in Istanbul since 2010, when they presented a Chopin Festival commemorating the composer’s bicentennial. 2011 saw a similar format, this time centering around Liszt. Opus Amadeus International Chamber Music Festival, on a two-year successful run, has not been only presenting talented chamber musicians from around the world, but it has also been featuring music that is quite audacious for Istanbul’s rather tentative standards. Martinů, Wieniawski, Vieuxtemps, Gismonti are some of the composers whose music has been included in this year’s programs.

Regrettably, I could only attend the final concert of the festival, but it was still one that, while being purely Baroque genre-wise, still included relatively lesser-known composers such as Johannes Kajoni and Antonio Caldara. The setting, the Church of St Anthony of Padua in the Beyoglu district, is one of the most important Catholic churches in Istanbul, and with its basilica-like interior it is a strikingly beautiful venue.

The Corelli Consort, at first glance, looks like a classic trio set-up with a violin and a viola, but instead of the traditional cello, the bass duties are provided by the bassoon, played by Mr Geza Hargitai, who is also the artistic director of the group. Although they are firmly based in Baroque, and pre-Baroque, they have been known to branch out to contemporary music as well as classical, jazz and beat. The ensemble also includes Judit Rajk, a very gifted contralto. It may seem daunting to come up with repertoire that fits this exact frame, but the Corelli Consort is obviously flexible in adapting the music to their specific setup.

The venue, as divine as it is, is still a Neo-Gothic church and there’s no going around the fact that reverbation was bound to be a problem. A good portion of the program was devoted to sacred music that was written to be played in a church, so while the sonics were disconcerting at times, you could still match the music with the atmosphere and deem the experience as the unity of the two. And this wasn’t necessarily a mandatory concession – particularly in the opening Kajoni songs and melodies. Ms Rajk’s voice sounded angelic and otherworldy in the Romanian composer’s middle-Baroque hymns. The two Bach arias, similarly, sounded right at home. Instead of the accompanying viola da gamba, escorting Ms Rajk were the trio in “Es ist vollbracht” from the St John Passion, making the music sounded fuller than usual. Similarly, in the Agnus Dei from the Mass in B minor, rather than a violin obbligato we were treated to a wider pedestal where the voice melody was repeated by the violin and viola, both separate and together.

While Caldara and Telemann’s cantatas had the benefit of the contralto voice holding the music together like a glue, the instrumental pieces suffered from the overbearing acoustics. Especially, Handel’s C major Sonata for recorder and harpsichord HWV 365, rearranged by the Corelli Consort for violin, viola and bassoon, sounded too spread out. You almost had to pick up bits and pieces of resonance from different parts of the hall and reconstruct the music in your head to comprehend, let alone enjoy it. I wouldn’t have minded that much, but I wish I could have heard their cleverly done rearrangement of the famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV 565 in a more sober environment.