Although the classical traditions of the Ottoman world were not notated, that doesn't mean there is no evidence as to how it sounded in past eras. In addition to verbal description and iconography, Istanbul was visited (and even lived in) by various musically trained Europeans. Jordi Savall and his Hespèrion XXI ensemble here rely on writings of a Moldavian prince, Dimitrie Cantemir, as well as traditional pieces from various strands in the complex cultural mosaic that has made up the city of Istanbul over the centuries. Thus there are complex improvisations (such as Taksim & Makam "Busclik usules," track 5) that are informed in their procedures by more than extrapolation backward from current technique, as well as traditional Armenian and Sephardic works and representatives of some of the main genres of Turkish classical music. The 250-page booklet includes no fewer than four separate essays, covering the history of the city, the Turkish genres involved, Cantemir's fascinating career, and a musical overview. Each is given in eight languages: French, English, Spanish, Catalan, Romani, German, Italian, and Turkish. Hespèrion XXI here expands to a large group of musicians from all over the European and Near Eastern musical worlds. For sheer ambition the album is hard to top, but equally impressive is that it never feels weighty or forced; the example of the gazel genre (the Indian ghazal must be related or at least cognate) clearly communicates its romantic content. This release is worth the money simply as a memorial to Savall's partner in musical innovation, soprano Montserrat Figueras, who died soon after recording the two lovely Sephardic pieces heard here. It also represents a remarkable and perhaps unprecedented cross-cultural enterprise.
AllMusic Review by James Manheim