Of the so-called "Turkish Five" (Saygun, Erkin, Rey, Akses, Alnar) Saygun is generally considered the greatest composer, and he is indeed a major composer by any standards (of the others I do not know Alnar's music; Rey and Erkin are enjoyable but not very original despite their inclusion of Turkish folk music in their works; Akses's musical language is personal and rewarding but less easy to come to terms with). Saygun's music is strongly imbued with elements of folk music, and he owes a lot to Bartok, but as with Bartok's music the folk influences are not just pasted on for local color but used as a backbone for a deeply original, powerful musical language. On the evidence of this disc Saygun was also an expert craftsman who retained complete formal control of his musical materials, and the two symphonies here are deeply fascinating, powerful works.
The first symphony is scored for a relatively small orchestra, which Saygun expertly utilized for imaginative chamber textures and colors - but combined with plenty of fire, momentum and cumulative power. It is nevertheless the remarkable, desolate but still somehow deeply emotionally charged Adagio that is the highlight. The second symphony is a masterpiece, riveting from beginning to end with its otherworldly colors and powerfully charged, darkly hued folk spirit. It reminds me most of all of Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, but although some of the effects are similar Saygun clearly has his own voice and his own ideas. The whole work is magnificent, but I need to mention in particular the remarkable, mysterious, quietly smoldering final fugue.
Two very rewarding works then, and at least one truly remarkable one. The performances by the Rheinland-Pfalz State Philharmonic under Ari Rasilainen leave little to be desired - they seem to have a deep understanding of the music, and the performances have all the smoldering intensity and colors that it needs. The sound is excellent as well. In short, this disc makes a very strong case for a composer who should be much better known, and is strongly recommended to anyone with an interest in 20th century music. In particular, I find it hard to imagine that any fan of Bartok would fail to warm to this music, even though Saygun's idiom is distinctly his own.