In 2012, the year after his beloved wife, Monseratt Figueras, died of cancer at 67, the early-music historian/archivist and viol performer Jordi Savall presented a deeply moving “In Memoriam” concert for her with his ensemble, Hesperion XXI. The setting was the fortress-like 11th century Romanesque Cathedral in Maguelonne, near Montpellier in southern France. The concert was part of the city’s annual June festival of early music.
In over 40 years of vigorous concertizing and with more than 100 recordings (recently on Alia Vox, his own label), Savall and his ensembles have come to occupy a singular position of honor in the world of early music. His research and performing history seem to expand with every recording, embracing not just the tradition of the Iberian peninsula (Hesperia), but all of Europe, from the Middle Ages to 19th century Romanticism. The most recent forays of his fecund mind are reflected in recordings and performances of the musical strains of Arab North Africa, the Islamic Levant, Sephardic Spain, Armenia, Macedonia, Turkey, Syria and Iran. His complete discography can be seen here.
Maestro Savall’s group is often proclaimed to be the definitive ensemble of early music. In 2005 he gave three concerts at the Metropolitan Museum in New York: the first two in the Medieval Sculpture Hall, in front of the great choir screen from the Valladolid Cathedral (the same space where the annual Christmas crèche is erected), and the third in the Egyptian Wing at the Temple of Dendur.
Savall’s concerts often take place in stunning visual environments — churches, palaces and museum galleries that are congruent with the music he is performing. Several dozen YouTube videos capture the mystery and the magic of these sites.
New Yorker music critic Alex Ross used his review of the April 2005 trio of Met concerts to give a brief tutorial on Savall and his influence on the world of early music scholarship and performance practice.
He was born in Barcelona in 1941, and still lives in the area. With his wavy mane and courtly beard, he could pass for one of El Greco’s more debonair Spanish knights. Part of his mission is to restore the splendor of Iberian musical traditions, which have long been disparaged by the Teutonic mind-set of the classical world.
It is easy to even go beyond Ross’ observation: “Amid the usual parade of famous, anonymous maestros, here, finally, was a man worth celebrating.” There is no whiff of the scholar or academic in Savall or in his music. The soulfulness of his viol playing and the rhythmic intensity of Hesperion XXI’s ensemble is a powerful antidote to the clichés of the classical concert hall, and a respite from the endless cycle of the standard classical repertoire. Hesperion XXI and the several other groups that Savall has created (including the Concert des Nations for Baroque and Classical era orchestral pieces, and La Capella Reial de Catalunya for vocal works) play with both grandeur and intimacy in ways that draw you in like no music you’ve experienced before.
Savall’s groups perform with period-accurate instruments, some of which are contemporary realizations of precious historic counterparts, sounding very different from their modern bretheren. The heart of the ensemble is the several sizes of viol. Though stringed and bowed, viols owe more to their lute and guitar origins than they do to the violins, violas, cellos and basses of today. Viols have a flatter neck, making it easier to bow several strings at the same time. Unlike the violin’s four strings, viols have six or seven; they are lighter, with a softer but rich resonance; and, crucially, like a lute, they have frets and are bowed while being held between the legs. (Witness the general moniker “viola da gamba.”)
Of all the recorded concerts I’ve heard of Savall’s music, it is his 2012 tribute to his beloved wife that is the most magical. Filmed with great professionalism, yet retaining the intimacy that is essential to this delicate music, it is absorbing both aurally and visually, in great part thanks to cinematographer Alexis Kavyrchine’s intricate camera coverage and dramatic lighting.
At the opening, and with the orchestra already seated, Savall rises to give a brief tribute to Figueras, saying simply that her spirit is still very much with them.
The music of the next 80 minutes is more than a concert; it is an affirmation of the shared experience of many different cultures. In a time of increasing cultural, ethnic and religious polarization (I write this on the day after the ISIS attacks in Paris), Savall has demonstrated through his research and performances that the modalities of Islamic, Jewish and Christian music once shared a very similar sonic culture, especially in Iberia, where Islam made its deepest cultural penetration, and where it is still set in the stone of the Alhambra and much of the architecture of southern Spain.
In the Maguelone concert, titled Lachrimae Caravaggio after the late 17th century Mannerist Italian painter, there are sounds both familiar and strange. Savall and Figueras’ son Ferran, who began in the group as a theorboist but often sings in Barcelona's jazz clubs as well, provides three heartfelt vocal interludes and an encore that evoke tones of Islamic calls to prayer and reflect the rhythms of the ensemble’s soulful viol strings.
In the spring of 2005, Savall developed the idea of a thematic musical program to be heard in conjunction with an exhibition of Caravaggio's paintings in Barcelona. This synethesia of the emotions evoked through music and painting had been expressed early in the 20th century by Vasilly Kandinsky (echoing Shakespeare, Goethe and Delacroix), who titled many of his paintings "Improvisations." While not meant to be direct "tone poems" of Caravaggio paintings, seven works are illustrated in the CD notes of "Lachrimae Caravaggio" on Alia Vox. The Maguellone performance is performed by an intimate, reduced ensemble (mainly viols) from the structure of the CD recording by Savall's "Concert des Nations."
When Savall sits down after his tribute to Figueras, beloved percussionist Pedro Estevan drums the intro to the anonymous “pavana del re.” The pavane was a slow processional dance of the Renaissance; here, the King’s Pavane is anything but “processional.” Nor are any of the other poly-rhythmic pieces, each a stand alone wonder.
Here is the concert in HD. Listen with a good headset or speaker system.
Savall has said, “There are two important moments: the day you were born and the day you decide why you are here.” He was born on Aug. 1, 1941; he decided to play cello when he was 15; and his cello was eventually replaced by a host of viols.
In 1991, the Alain Corneau film Tous les Matins du Monde became an international hit. It tells the story of a famed 17th century viol musician, Monsieur Sainte Columbe, who, having refused service in Jean-Baptiste Lully’s orchestra of Louis XIV, lives in rural isolation with his two daughters. A gifted young student, Marin Marais, arrives at his door and plays for him. Savall dubbed the audition music in this scene from the trailer:
For his music in the Corneau film, Savall received a César Award, the French Oscar. The elegant photography of Yves Angelo was similarly honored. Since then Savall has provided the music for a number of other European films, including two by the indefatigable director Jacques Rivette.
The continuing interest in ancient ecumenical music is fueled by more than scholarship or simple nostalgia. We live in a time of increasingly jingoistic cultural and musical militarism. The aggressive power of pop music is often a badge of a misguided cultural superiority; its often barely coded message of egocentric identity and Western hegemony is antithetical to the inclusive and celebratory tone of the music of Savall and other early music groups. As you listen to the rapturous music of this concert, you can’t help but feel deep in your heart that somehow, in our troubled time, this original “world music” might be what gives us solace and hope, especially in this holiday season.