Subtle pleasures of the Italian and French Baroque from Jordi Savall at Carnegie Hall

United StatesUnited States Various: Soloists of La Capella Reial de Catalunya, Le Concert des Nations / Jordi Savall (music director & viol). Carnegie Hall, New York, 22 & 23.2.2022. (RP)

Monteverdi’s Madrigals of Love and War at Carnegie Hall © Richard Termine

Monteverdis Madrigals of Love and War – 22 February

Monteverdi – Sinfonia from Sinfonia Concerto con altri generi de canti (Libro settimo); ‘Altri canti di Marte e di sua schiera’, ‘Volgendo il ciel per l’immortal sentiero Movete al mio bel suon’, Sinfonia, ‘Altri canti d’amor, tenero arciero’, ‘Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda’, ‘Lamento della Ninfa’, ‘Or che’l cielo e la terra e’l vento tace’ from Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi (Libro ottavo); Sinfonia (L’Orfeo); Sinfonia (Cantante Domino canticum novum)
Falconieri – Ciaccona (L’eroica à 3)

Royal Concerts in the Baroque Versailles – 23 February

Anon. – Concert donné a Louis XIII en 1627
Sainte-Colombe – ‘Le retour’ (Concerts à deux violes esgales)
Marais – Prelude in A (Pièces de viole Book 3 No.11); ‘Fêtes Champêtres’ (Pièces de viole Book 4 No.61); ‘L’Ameriquaine’ (Pièces de viole Book 4 No.68); Muzette I (Pièces de viole Book 4 No.28); Muzette II (Pièces de viole Book 4 No.29); ‘La sautillante’ (Pièces de viole Book 4 No.30)
Couperin – Troisième concert royal
Rameau – Tambourin I et II (Pièces de clavecin en concert, Troisième concert)
Leclair – Sonata in D major Op.2 No.8

The end of February brings an exceptional and most welcome bonanza of music to Carnegie Hall. Tucked between the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra were the more subtle, if no less rewarding, musical pleasures of the Baroque performed in two concerts with Jordi Savall and Le Concert des Nations.

These concerts marked the beginning of Savall and his troupe’s North American tour. A bit more rehearsal for the first concert featuring Monteverdi’s madrigals, to say nothing of perhaps a more intimate venue than Carnegie Hall’s five-story Stern Auditorium, would have been preferable, but any opportunity to hear Jordi Savall and the superb musicians who comprise Le Concert des Nations and La Capella Reial de Catalunya is always welcome.

Jordi Savall (music director) © Richard Termine

Experiencing Savall and his cohorts is akin to going to a performance of rock or folk musicians still active after more than half a century of performing. Such musicians, of whatever ilk, collectively created the musical landscape for many of our lives. Before pioneers such as Savall, there was little interest in long-forgotten music hidden away in dusty libraries, palaces and monasteries, historical performance practice and authentic period instruments. Now, with decades of musicmaking behind them, Le Concert des Nations performs completely in the moment, probing ever deeper into the sonorities and emotions of the music.

Monteverdi’s Madrigals of Love and War from 1638 transformed the madrigal to an almost operatic scale. (His L’Orfeo, which was first performed in 1607, is the first opera to have survived the centuries and remain in the repertory.)  The collection contains some of the Italian composer’s greatest music, in which lovers and warriors express intense emotion to instrumental accompaniments. In Monteverdi’s day, it was customary to perform the madrigals with entirely male voices; in this regard, Savall deviated in his quest for authenticity in these performances.

The most dramatically compelling of the pieces were ‘Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda’, a setting of a portion of Tasso’s epic poem, Gerusalemme liberate, and ‘Lamento della Ninfa’ to a canzonetta by Rinuccini. In the former, baritone Furio Zanasi gave a vivid description of the battle to the death between the two combatants. His narration, which ranged from a rapid-fire, almost breathless description of the duel to passages where he barely sang, was spellbinding.

Soprano Paola Valentina Molinari expressed the heart-rending lament of a woman betrayed by her lover with depth, sincerity and limpid tone. Molinari was captivating as she sang of the woman’s despair to the accompaniment of a four-note bass pattern that repeats 34 times. The emotional depth of her singing was amplified by a trio of male voices who commiserate with the plight of the nymph and offer her solace.

Savall prefaced ‘Lamento della Ninfa’ with a Sinfonia from L’Orfeo. It was one of the many instances in when Andrew Lawrence-King mesmerized the audience with his playing of the arpa doppia, an early Italian harp popular in Italy from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth centuries. The length of time it took for him to tune his instrument was more a cause for mirth than impatience on this particular night.

The next evening found Savall and Le Concert des Nations in the much smaller Zankel Hall, which proved far more congenial acoustically for a program entitled Royal Concerts in the Baroque Versailles. It featured music from the courts of Louis XIII and Louis XIV of the sort that helped to establish Paris as the musical of capital of Europe during their reigns. The music was lyrical and graceful, in contrast to the far more flamboyant virtuosic and dramatic displays that abounded in the Monteverdi madrigals.

Central to the program were four pieces by Marin Marais, who was the most celebrated viol da gamba player of his time. Savall found fame when he performed Marais’s music on the soundtrack for the 1991 film Tous les matins du monde. Set during the reign of Louis XIV, the movie shows Marais looking back on his young life when he was briefly a pupil of Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe, whose ‘Le retour’ from Concerts à deux violes esgales immediately preceded it on the program.

Savall was partnered by bass violist Philippe Pierlot in Sainte-Colombe’s ‘Le retour’ and the four Marais pieces. It was if time stood still listening to music performed with such authority and eloquence.

The final work on the program was Jean-Marie Leclair’s Sonata in D major. It afforded violinist Manfredo Kraemer and flutist Charles Zebley the opportunity to engage in the most lyrical of musical dialogues, underpinned by Savall, Rolf Lislevand on the theorbo and Marco Vitale on the harpsichord. The sonata’s brisk final movement brought the program to an end with a flourish.

There were encores after both concerts, but it is hard to imagine music purer and more poignant than Arvo Pärt’s ‘Da pacem Domine’, sung by La Capella Reial de Catalunya at the first performance. Savall offered the Estonian composer’s setting of the ancient prayer as a plea for peace when there was still a chance that war would be averted in Ukraine. By the time the final notes of the second concert had sounded, that hope had evaporated.

Rick Perdian

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