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Twelve Days of Christmas: More from Istanbul and the Mediterranean

available at Amazon
La Sublime Porte: Voix d'Istanbul, M. Figueras, G. Dinçer, L. Elmaleh, Hespèrion XXI, J. Savall

(released on November 25, 2011)
Alia Vox AVSA 9887 | 79'49"

available at Amazon
Mare Nostrum, M. Figueras, L. Elmaleh, Hespèrion XXI, J. Savall

(released on January 10, 2012)
Alia Vox AVSA 9888A+B | 158'03"
After the success of the album Istanbul last year, Jordi Savall continues a fruitful collaboration with musicians from Turkey and other parts of the Middle East. The title of this new disc, La Sublime Porte, refers both to the gate of the Vizier's palace in Istanbul and the role of that city as portal of transition between East and West. In a similar vein, Mare Nostrum -- Hespèrion XXI's latest CD-Book, as these lavishly produced sets are called -- is a 2-CD exploration of music of various traditions from the lands around "our sea," the Mediterranean. The latter release, scheduled for early next month, is a long-term project, with recording sessions stretching back to 2009. The group produces so many fine recordings, at a dizzying pace, that it would be reckless to recommend all of them. Both of these recordings can be enjoyed without the full trappings of thick booklets (in, let's face it, far too many languages) and SACD sound, since the performances are probably just as pleasing in much less expensive mp3 format.

In particular, the philosophical self-seriousness of the Mare Nostrum booklet essays, weaving together details of history and geography of the Mediterranean region with ponderous political diatribes on the Arab spring uprisings and immigration issues in Europe, far outweighs the rather simple music recorded here, a string of dance pieces, lullabies, and love songs, some of it medieval and much of it from the last two centuries. The mixture of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim music is a hot trend at the moment: we just reviewed two programs featuring Sephardic music in that combination, by the Rose Ensemble and the Boston Camerata. Here, as there, the problem of trying to pass off folk music of recent vintage as a comparison to notated medieval music is evident. Again, listening to the performances, which are all lovely and made with obvious conviction, is more satisfying by itself than trying to coordinate it with the somewhat superfluous, quasi-historical stuff. In short, this is pretty music but not compulsory listening.

In fact, the most compelling attraction of both of these discs is the chance to hold onto the sound of soprano Montserrat Figueras, the wife and muse of Jordi Savall, who passed away last month. Overall, La Sublime Porte is the more pleasing of these two discs, but Figueras is heard on only two tracks, rendered poignant mostly because they were recorded, in a chapel in Catalunya, only a few months before she died. In both recordings, her light, increasingly frail voice is paired with that of Israeli folk singer Lior Elmaleh. His is also a lovely voice, rather than a great one, attuned to the folk styles featured here, blurred together in a sort of potpourri. There is nothing stopping his rendition of the final tune, the title track of Mare Nostrum, from becoming the next Euro pop hit.

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