Thursday , May 23 2024
Jordi Savall
Jordi Savall. Photo credit: Amadalvarez, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Reviews: Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI – Carnegie Hall Concert, New Album Mixing Ancient and Contemporary Music

Seeing Jordi Savall, perhaps the world’s foremost early music popularizer, with his group Hespèrion XXI is a time-travel experience – in a way, a circular one.

Classical audiences aren’t accustomed to hearing music that sounds actually danceable, as opposed to just being rhythmically rooted in old dance forms. And they’re not used to hearing spiraling improvisations over simple repeated chord progressions; isn’t that more like – well – popular or folk music?

jordi savall
Jordi Savall with his viol. Photo by ÁWá (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

And by definition, we hear for the most part only current popular music forms. The 20th century, for example, saw the rise of improvisatory jazz and guitar-shredding rock. Whereas the baroque and classical music of the 18th and 19th centuries that we experience today is locked into the holy archives of printed scores.

Personality arises from interpretation. As concert pianist Inna Faliks puts it in her recent memoir, “There are thousands of notes in a given piece. Every one is unique in character, in color, in its story, and in its meaning. These notes can come alive as many times as we can remember them and choose to give them life.” Yet the notes remain the notes, staring out at us from a book, daring a musician to find their own expression in them.

Hespèrion XXI: An All-Star Band

Jordi Savall has had many projects, but with Hespèrion XXI, for which he’s best known, he loops back to an even earlier time, to “popular” music of the 16th and early 17th centuries. And here we do find wild improvisations like in jazz, and flashy displays of off-the-cuff fretboard fireworks like a heavy metal guitarist’s.

His band’s sold-out April 3 performance at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall actually began somewhat placidly, with its earliest music: sunny and almost childlike 16th-century pieces by Vincenzo Ruffo, and a sad, quiet piece for theorbo and harp by 16th-century Italian composer Emilio de’ Cavalieri.

The viola da gamba is Savall’s speciality, and three of the six musicians play the instrument in treble and bass varieties. Notwithstanding the beauty of their sound, these viols can’t compete with violins and cellos in room-filling resonance. The percussion, harp, theorbo, and guitar that joined them are quiet devices too. Indeed the Cavalieri “Sinfonia” included only the Renaissance era harp (arpa doppia) and the giant lute known as the theorbo. This is not music that envelops you, like a Mozart piano concerto or a Beethoven string quartet. This is music one must lean into.

Things began to get more quirky with a second Cavalieri piece, with rapidly changing tempos in discrete but contiguous sections some of which brought early English folk music to mind as lutenist Xavier Diaz-Latorre switched from theorbo to guitar.

Greensleeves and Galliards

After music by the Scotsman Tobias Hume for three viols came something truly English: variations on “Greensleeves.” This emerged like an improvisatory ciaccona (or chaconne in its more commonly seen French form). A spirited galliard by 17th-century German organist Samuel Scheidt was the first of several selections that featured “dueling” treble viols, with Savall and the estimable Philipe Pierlot (of the wonderful Ricercar Consort) exchanging solos like jazz musicians trading fours. Savall walks with a cane now, but his musical dexterity and creativity are fully intact, as evidenced in the fast 3/8 rhythm of a guaracha by the 17th-century Mexican composer and viol player Juan Garcíia de Zéspedes.

The ever-popular ciaccona form appeared several times. One is credited to Neapolitan composer and lutenist Andrea Falconiere. Another was probably today’s greatest hit of the period, the “Folia,” presented here in a couple of iterations. In the second of these Savall again displayed his improvisatory dexterity – as well as his facility with double stops – this time on the bass viol, which is roughly the size of a cello.

The smashing final work on the program, a “Galliarda Napolitana” by Antonio Valente, featured Savall achieving almost the tone of a violin as he sawed up and down the range of the treble viol over a repeated rock-and-roll 1-4-5 chord progression.

The international spirit continued with a pair of improvisatory encores from the Quechua culture of the Lima region. In these the musicians adapted European instruments to rhythms that arose from a culture from another continent – but that expressed the same folky quality and danceability as so much of Hespèrion’s European repertoire.

Mirrors of Time

Another kind of time loop manifests on a new double album that pairs ancient music with pieces by contemporary Spanish composers. Mirrors of Time presents recordings of early music by Jordi Savall and collaborators (including both the 20th- and 21st-century iterations of Hespèrion), each followed by a work for piano inspired by that recording. Spanish pianist and contemporary music specialist Diego Fernández Magdaleno conceived the project and performs the piano works.

Mirrors of Time - Jordi Savall, Diego Fernández Magdaleno

The contemporary pieces evince a variety of styles. It’s often fairly easy to hear aspects of the pieces that inspired them. Many distort or comment on the source material, like José María García Laborda’s take on John Dowland’s “Lachrimae Antiquae. Similarly, the lush “Mariam Matrem,” shrouded in echo and featuring the voices of La Capella Reial de Catalunya, generates a powerful gloss by Jesús Legido.

Others contrast openly with their ancient inspiration, or bury common motives in dense modern harmonics. By contrast, the haunting “Stella Splendens” elicits something like variations on the theme from Tomás Marco.

“Le Couperin de Figueras” by Francisco García Álvarez is a response to a recording of “Troisième Leçon de Ténèbres” by Couperin that’s beautifully sung by María Cristina Kiehr and Savall’s late wife Montserrat Figueras. The piano response feels like baroque harpsichord music and sounds rather like Bach at times, but with sudden intrusions of eye-opening dissonance.

Diego Fernández Magdaleno at the piano

The boisterous “Cunctissimus concanentes” inspires a growly, staccato reiteration from Armond Grèbol that suggests something like a German cabaret song filtered through Bartók. A “Pompe Funèbre” from Couperin gets a dark but surprisingly aggressive “Jubilis” response from composer Benet Casablancas (who also provides liner notes that explain the genesis of the project).

A standout piece, “De biauté, de valour” by Albert Sardá, takes as inspiration a mournful rendering of “De tous biens plaine,” a famous chanson credited to the Renaissance composer Hayne van Ghiezeghem. One of the earliest works in the set, it’s played here on three viols. Sardá creates an intricate and compelling musical journey in his six-minute response, which finishes with an explosive outburst and a dark, muted coda.

Time Hasn’t Slowed Down Jordi Savall

Since the 1970s, both in concert and in the studio, Jordi Savall has been holding up mirrors of time, offering us views through the ages and around the world through music that ranges from the sublime to the danceable and much in between. Even just his recent releases cover a startlingly wide range. One is a Mozart Requiem. Another, Orient Lux, presents music from nations far and wide that draws on various chant traditions, assembled in tribute to the victims of the civil war in Syria.

Jordi Savall’s flow of creative energy seems endless. May he continue to inspire us for many more years.

Mirrors of Time is available now.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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