Stunning Brilliance from Jordi Savall and his Ensemble

 United StatesUnited States Folias Antiguas & Criollas: Jordi Savall (director and viols), Hespèrion XXI, Tembembe Ensamble Continuo, Town Hall, Seattle, 28.2.2014 (BJ)

Diego Ortiz: La Spagna; Folia IV–Passamezzo antico I–Passamezzo moderno III–Ruggero–Romanesca VII–Passamezzo moderno II
anon.: Folias Antiguas; Folias “Rodrigo Martinez”; Regents Rant; Crabs in the skillet; Lord Moira’s Hornpipe; Canarios
Gaspar Sanz: Jácaras/La Petenera
Pedro Guerrero: Moresca
Antonio de Cabezón: Folia: Pavana con su Glosa
Juan García de Zéspedes: Guaracha
Santiago de Murcia: Jarocho; Fandango–El Fandanguillo
Antonio Martín y Coll: Diferencias sobre las Folias
Francisco Correa de Arauxo: Glosas sobre “Todo el mundo en general”
Antonio Valente: Gallarda Napolitana–Jarabe Loco

“Early Music” is a vague term. Though it may safely be taken to denote anything written before the Classical period of Haydn and Mozart, its purview can range from as far back as Léonin and Pérotin of the Notre Dame polyphonic school in 12th-century Paris, or even earlier, to anywhere up to the late Baroque.

The Hispanic composers of both the Old World and the New whose music was heard at the Early Music Guild’s concert in Town Hall covered a life span from 1510, when Diego Ortiz and Antonio de Cabezón were born, to 1739, when Santiago de Murcia died. To perform their work, EMG wisely brought to Seattle Jordi Savall with his Hespèrion XXI ensemble, which joined forces for the occasion with Mexico’s Tembembe Ensamble Continuo. And Savall is a man deeply versed in all the styles practiced in—and beyond—that wide range of years.

My own admiration for Savall’s talents began in a context close to the end of the series of centuries that his expertise covers. The recording he made of Handel’s Water Music with another ensemble he founded, Le Concert des Nations, is perhaps the finest and certainly the most thrilling account of that work I have ever heard. The repertoire for this concert came mostly from much earlier, but Savall’s command—as his reputation led me to expect—was every bit as impressive in this delightful collection of older music.

The program being centered on treatments of the traditional theme known as the Folia, the works we heard possessed a clearly perceptible family likeness. They were also for the most part simple in form: a tune of dance-like cut, followed by a sequence of, not exactly variations in the Classical sense, but variants, glosses, or “diferencias” based on it. Yet the rich instrumental variety and supreme artistry of the performances precluded any danger of boredom for a packed and highly responsive Town Hall audience.

For reasons that were not clear, there was a small group of Celtic pieces embedded in the Spanish and Latin-American program. The first of them, the traditional Scottish Regents Rant, Savall dispatched–solo–with dazzling virtuosity on the bass viol. Indeed, though endowed at the age of 72 with grey hair and beard and an air of near-unshakable seriousness, he seems to have preserved his legendary technique to perfection, and along with all that seriousness, his playing never misses an opportunity to entertain or even amuse.

Savall’s partners on stage were in every way worthy of him. The joint ensemble was in a sense a mixed one since, while the director played treble and bass viols, one member of the Mexican group, Ulises Martínez, was playing the viol family’s successor the violin, which was only just beginning to exist in the 16th century. Martínez and his Tembembe colleagues Enrique Barona and Leopoldo Novoa, together with Hespèrion members Xavier Díaz Latorre, Andrew Lawrence-King, and David Mayoral, all playing on a panoply of instruments too numerous to name, and giving lusty voice when occasion arose, contributed to an ensemble of stunning brilliance and keen sensitivity.

This fascinating EMG program was presented in collaboration with Acción Cultural Española, a public institution whose aim is “to further and promote Spain’s culture and heritage.” It is hard to imagine that any more persuasive vehicle for that campaign could be found than Jordi Savall and his gifted colleagues.

This was a concert that offered the salutary experience of returning in spirit to an age before the gulf between “serious” and “popular” music opened up: a time when music was simply music.

Bernard Jacobson