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Music Review: Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI: ‘Musica Nova: Harmonie Des Nations 1500-1700’

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Jordi Savall with his viol. Photo by ÁWá (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
“Musica Nova.” In English: “New Music.” Imagine yourself in Europe half a millennium ago. Music, for the most part, is sung, or else played on instruments to accompany dances. But composers have now begun to use the viola da gamba (viol), a then-new family of fretted string instruments, to imitate the human voice, solo and in harmony. They’re also refashioning traditional dance music into concert pieces artistically structured for listening pleasure. It’s a whole new world.

Musica Nova: Harmonie Des Nations 1500-1700, the new recording from Jordi Savall, celebrated musician-scholar and eminence grise of the viol, offers representative pieces of what can be broadly termed the “Musica Nova” movement of the 16th and 17th centuries in Italy, France, England, Germany, Spain, and Portugal.

The album presents the development of this instrumental music through the end of the following century, beginning with a set of stately Venetian dances from the early 1500s and a ricercare from a body of work by Hieronimus Parabosco explicitly titled “Musica Nova.”

It also gives us Elizabethan and Jacobean consort music from John Dowland and others, in which you can hear harmonies becoming more sophisticated and interesting – even a little weird in spots – with far deeper emotional resonance. The forms are still dances, but the music was written to be listened to, even the “Scottish Dance” by William Brade, which, though 400 years old, will sound utterly familiar to anyone who has heard folk musicians playing “trad” Gaelic music today.

A set of selections from Hamburg composer Samuel Scheidt’s Ludi Musici of 1621 opens with an exceptionally beautiful “Paduan” (Pavane). It also includes an energetic “Allemande,” as well as a “Galliard Battaglia” that’s introduced by a flourish from the tambour drum and sounds as briskly militaristic as its title suggests.

Together, Savall, Philippe Pierlot, and the other gambists of Hespèrion XXI attain an ethereal synchronicity and an ambrosial tone. In the slow passages of a 1673 sonata by Giovanni Legrenzi, their flowing harmonies attain such a full sound you could almost think you’re hearing a pipe organ.

From the artistically fertile court of Louis XIV comes Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s six-movement Suite (H. 545), webbed with intricate counterpoint. Even its two sprightly Gigues seem full of rich meaning.

The album closes with three late-17th-century pieces from the Iberian peninsula that express feelings ranging from the mournful to the triumphant to the simply content. Indeed the album as whole spans not only the (even then highly integrated) nations of “old Europe” but the gamut of human emotion.

The organization and valuable program notes may be somewhat academic, but the music is anything but dry. You don’t need experience with or knowledge of early music to appreciate the beauty, and the consummate expertise, of these performances. Now available for pre-order, Musica Nova comes out April 27, and the ensemble is on tour in North America this spring.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is a Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he visits every park in New York City. And by night he's a part-time working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.

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