This album is based on the not-too-farfetched premise that there were stylistically similar musical ideas adrift in the Mediterranean basin in the 16th and 17th centuries in European and Byzantine cultures. Pera Ensemble, founded in Istanbul in 2005 by Mehmet C. Yesilçay and Ihsan Özer, is dedicated to exploring European and Byzantine music not in an attempt to synthesize it but to point to the elements that show that the disparity between them was not nearly as great as is usually assumed. Both cultures had a strong tradition of improvisation and the album includes several tracks of improvised solos and ensembles; the group improvisation on track 11, featuring the sînekeman (a viola d'amore), is one of the lyrical highlights of the album. The use of ornamentation and improvisation was a given in Monteverdi, and it's not hard to imagine that the modal inflections in the accompaniment to this performance of his madrigal Si dolce é'l tormento, though recognizably Eastern, would have been heard as legitimate. Other Italian composers include Rossi, Caccini, and Angelo Michele Bartoletti. Wojciech Bobowski, who was born in Poland but kidnapped and brought to Istanbul, represents a bridge between cultures. He converted to Islam, changed his name to Ali Ufkî and became one of the most important Byzantine composers. Pera Ensemble uses a mix of Eastern and Western instruments, including oud, qanun, kemence, viola d'amore, viola da gamba, theorbo, shawm, and an assortment of percussion instruments. The combination offers a sound that broadens but does not distort the colors of a traditional Western consort. Romanian countertenor Valer Barna-Sabadus has an attractive, exceptionally robust sound that could make it easy to mistake him for a mezzo-soprano, and he deploys it with uninhibited athleticism. The sound is clean, detailed, and realistically present. This beautifully produced album should appeal to fans of the early Baroque, as well as anyone with an interest in Byzantine music.
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AllMusic Review by Stephen Eddins