In his 250th anniversary year, Ludwig van Beethoven was, unsurprisingly, meant to be at the centre of the 48th edition of the Istanbul Music Festival. Symphonies, concertos, string quartets and sonatas were all scheduled for June, but Covid-19 put paid to many of those plans. Undeterred, the festival has taken the online route, streaming its revised programme, mostly from outdoor locations around Istanbul. One event to survive intact from the original festival was Pastorale alla Turca, a concert juxtaposing Beethoven with traditional Turkish classical music, then mashing them together for a new festival commission.

Serkan Mesut Halili (qanun) and Derya Türkan (kemenche)
© Poyraz Tütüncü

The recital was filmed in the courtyard of the 13th-century Byzantine Palace of the Porphyrogenitus during the golden glow of dusk, with no audience present. During the height of the Ottoman Empire, the palace was used to house the sultan’s menagerie, but only the occasional squawk of protest by a parakeet intruded on proceedings here. 

Founded in 2009, the Semplice Quartet is a splendid ensemble of young musicians who all play in Turkish orchestras. They studied with Johannes Meissl in Vienna and their ease in the Viennese style was evident in a very fine performance of Beethoven’s early String Quartet in G major, Op.18 no.2. Haydnesque in character, it was full of amiable conversation in the Semplice’s performance. Their tone is lean and lithe, underpinned by Burak Ayrancı’s buoyant cello lines. The contemplative nature of the Adagio cantabile was beautifully captured, while the gentle discourse of the Scherzo, led by first violin Murat Anıl Erginol, was met by Rüstem Mustafa (guest second violin) with the airiest of touches. Beethoven’s athletic finale was full of spring in its step.

The Semplice Quartet
© Poyraz Tütüncü

After another of the director’s aerial shots over the city – I spied the Hagia Sophia in the distance a few times – we moved to music by Dede Efendi, a contemporary of Beethoven’s (born 1778) and the most prolific of the Ottoman Empire. He was a favourite among sultans, including Selim III, who was himself a composer. Extracts from two works were played by a quartet playing traditional Turkish instruments: the kemenche (a string instrument played upright, bowed like a miniature cello); the oud (like a short-necked lute); the qanun (part of the zither family, its strings plucked with two tortoise-shell picks); and percussion. Efendi’s music follows predictable, but attractive patterns, often infectiously rhythmic. In between the two works came a solo for Derya Türkan, his husky kemenche intoning a pensive recitative.

Aykut Köselerli (percussion) and Yurdal Tokcan (oud)
© Poyraz Tütüncü

Combining Ottoman and Western Classical styles is nothing new. Back in the 1990s, Concerto Köln teamed up with German early music ensemble Sarband for a couple of riotous discs where Turkish instruments ambushed works by Mozart, Süssmayr and Gluck. Here, the mash-up of styles came via composer Turgay Erdener, a lecturer at the Ankara State Conservatory. The Nonet Pastoral “alla turca” aimed high, combining string quartet, double bass and traditional Turkish instruments in a work based on themes from Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Its five movements were pleasant enough, but it largely became a game of “spot the quote”, the kemenche playing snatches of Ludwig’s “cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside”, while the Scene by the Brook, complete with birdsong, also made an appearance. A rustic dance marked the finale, after which the film cut away just a little too swiftly… a touch more of that Turkish twilight would have been welcome. 

This performance was reviewed from the Istanbul Music Festival video stream.