AHMED SAYGUN – Middle Eastern Influences – SQ No. 3

Turkish composer Ahmed Adnan Saygun [1907-1991] wrote four string quartets. The last was not completed and consists of only two movements. Saygun’s music is steeped in the Western Classical Music tradition but he does draw on Turkish folk music influences. These are manifested in exotic scales leading to very interesting melodies and abstract soundscapes. There is also a very strong rhythmic focus at times. I would like to stress however, that these are bona fide string quartets in the classical style and are not, in any way, examples of world music.

The first two quartets are wonderful, and very interesting. I love the ambience and the sense of space, together with the ethnic melodies. However, I am going to discuss the Third Quartet, which is slightly more intense and I like that. No. 3 is in three movements and, as with the first two quartets, contains many instances of the previously mentioned Turkish influences.

The first movement, marked grave, is magnificent. It runs for 15 minutes and covers plenty of emotional territory. It begins ever so quietly, but with a restless feeling. Two violins probe the mood and a dialogue ensues. Now a violin scurries about and the other instruments enter with the same approach. The music intensifies and becomes propulsive. A sense of moderate chaos is sustained for a time before the violins scurry again. There are string sound effects and the chaos returns. A pause brings in the cello and a violin answers in a whisper. This is a wonderful passage, one to be savoured. More chaos returns before a longing violin statement introduces another fine passage where there is plenty of movement. String sound effects abound as the music becomes more intense. The feeling seems to be ever-changing, sometimes delicate, sometimes chaotic. There are several ascending and descending folk-like melodies and as we move toward the end things become very gentle.

This movement is a tour de force. It is very Modern and contains many sections of mild dissonance, atmospheric spaces and rhythmic intensity.

The next movement is marked lento and again starts quietly. A solo violin is joined by a second, leading to a fugue-like feeling. There is very little from the ensemble until the cello begins to offer up supporting statements. A mild chaos briefly develops, only to descend back into a very dynamic section where the volume oscillates through differing melodic sections. The violin tone is so pure. Soft sections of strong melodies lead us to the end where chordal interjections gradually dissipate into nothing.

The final movement opens with a strong rhythmic figure leading to an interesting chord. The music breaks into tempo with an excitement factor. A strongly harmonised melodic phrase leads to an ostinato figure in an ethnic scale. The violins are quite intense and there is a lot of energy. A solo violin passage is interrupted by a pizzicato cello which leads back into an abstract passage with the violin reaching into the high register. Gradually it descends and is joined by the ensemble. Now follows a short held violin note, very powerful, which develops into one of those abstract soundscapes. The end comes with a strong violin figure which fades out and it’s all over.

This is a fascinating work. On reflection, it is not as ethnic as I first thought, but it is more modern. Apparently, The Times referred to Saygun as:

The grand old man of Turkish music, who was to his country what Jean Sibelius is to Finland, what Manuel de Falla is to Spain, and what Béla Bartók is to Hungary. (Thanks, Wiki).

This interesting music is contained on a 2-CD set, Complete String Quartets, on CPO, performed by the Quatuor Danel. It can be found on Amazon US and UK. There are also several quartets on individual CDs.

Unfortunately, I was not able to find a version of No. 3 that you could sample. String Quartet No. 1 is available on Spotify and a handful of various quartet movements are on YouTube. There are two complete quartets on earsense, but not No. 3.

Listenability: Modern and eminently profound quartets.


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