The Waltz: Ecstasy and Mysticism looks fascinating, but there's less here than initially meets the eye. It purports to offer a look at the mutual influence and occasional confluence of central European and Turkish musical cultures, focusing on the ways the idea of triple meter was used in each as it traveled between the two. Two groups, the period-instrument Concerto Köln and the Turkish ensemble Sarband, perform (mostly separately, but sometimes together in the arrangements by director Vladimir Ivanoff) German Dances by Mozart and Beethoven, which are presented as showing Turkish influence, along with what are purported to be waltzes by a Turkish composer named Dede Efendi, apparently known as "Dede the European." The idea of exploring the decades- or centuries-long interaction between Austria and Turkey is a good one, and the execution is attractive on the surface. Too, the early Western influence on non-Western musical cultures is a subject worthy of greater attention.
The Turkish waltzes heard here sound fascinating. But is that really what they are? Most of them are designated as "semai," and a little footnote tells us that the word denotes a "short vocal or instrumental piece, in which the metre is selected from a specified group of dance metres." In other words, they could just as easily be waltzes or something else. The disc is also on questionable ground in suggesting a dual cross-cultural evolution of the 3/4 idea, through the Viennese waltz on one hand and triple-meter music associated with the dances of the whirling dervishes (a term Sufis often find objectionable) on the other. The evolution passes through a "Musical Contest alla Turca," supposedly based on battles of the bands "often fought out between the orchestras of the European ambassadors and the sultan's court musicians." Sounds interesting, again, but Ivanoff arranges his Turkish dances from monophonic pieces notated by the Romanian-born musician Demetrius Cantemir -- who lived a century before Beethoven's time. The whole concept is wrapped up with mystical ideas of how the circularity of 3/4 time "symbolizes the cosmic order" for whirling dervishes even as it had shed its religious associations and taken on erotic significance in Europe.
Certainly the disc will appeal to a certain sort of speculative mind. Scraps of historical justification for what's been done here can be found, but they're buried way too deep in the small print of the liner notes. As the presentation stands, it's deceptive. Ensemble director and concept originator Ivanoff, in the promotional material posted on Deutsche Grammophon's website, offers the defense that the music is "not pure fantasy," and really that's about the best that can be said for it. If the music here had been presented as an original, contemporary cultural hybrid rather than as a re-created historical document, it might have called for a different set of critical criteria. But if you want to hear East inventively meet West, listen to some contemporary Turkish pop.