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Jordi Savall Bends Time

available at Amazon
T. Hume, Musical Humors, J. Savall
(Alia Vox, 2004)

available at Amazon
Marais, Pièces de Viole, J. Savall, T. Koopman, H. Smith
(Alia Vox, 2011)
Only rarely does a classical musician cross the line into general celebrity these days. The situation is even less common for a performer of early music, a niche within a niche. Jordi Savall is perhaps the only example, known as a humanitarian and cultural icon as well as for his work as a conductor of early music ensembles. For a rare solo recital at the Phillips Collection on Sunday afternoon, he came only with his Barak Norman viola da gamba, built in London in 1697. With a program of outrageously obscure, mostly Baroque music, he commanded the stage with magnetic charisma.

The program was called “The Spirit of the Viol,” but the implied chronological survey was cast in reverse, beginning with music by the last gamba virtuoso, Karl Friedrich Abel (1723-1787), and going back in time to music from the late Renaissance. Rather than showing historical progress from simple to complex, the ordering revealed a body of music that went from inventive and varied to more homogenized as the instrument got older. By the time of Karl Friedrich Abel, the instrument was a curiosity, still found in German courts, where Johann Sebastian Bach wrote occasionally for it. Then it vanished, and only musicians like Savall, interested in historically informed performance practice, have made it live again.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Jordi Savall wakes an early-music instrument from a long sleep (Washington Post, March 8)

Simon Chin, Jordi Savall’s Magisterial Viola da Gamba Recital at the Phillips Collection (Chin Up, March 7)

Joseph Miller, Gambist and Early Music Scholar Jordi Savall in recital, presented by CAMA Masterseries (Santa Barbara Independent, March 7)

Alan G. Artner, Jordi Savall presents masterful concert of musical humors (Chicago Tribune, March 5)

Tim Sawyier, Jordi Savall channels the English Renaissance at Mandel Hall (Chicago Classical Review, March 5)

Sylvie Bonier, Jordi Savall, la philosophie musicale (Le Temps, February 22)

Thomas May, Aural tradition: a weekend with early-music legend and gamba virtuoso Jordi Savall (Seattle Times, February 18)

Rocco Zacheo, Jordi Savall distille à Genève l’éternelle jeunesse de la musique ancienne (Tribune de Genève, February 18)
Savall’s performance did not generally impress with technical prowess, as there were minor infelicities of tone and intonation here and there. A recital by gambist Paolo Pandolfo, over a decade ago now at Dumbarton Oaks, satisfied much more in that department, for example. Still, this was music that had been deeply pondered by its performer, shown in both his brief spoken introductions and his handling of each piece, like a curio to be examined from every angle.

Played in small groups, the pieces blended into one another, often because Savall improvised on them or otherwise modified them. In his adaptation of a solo cello piece by J. S. Bach for the viol, for example, he played one section of the piece over and over, sort of like a variation set. Sometimes he announced the titles of the pieces, unobtrusively, to help the audience follow the arc of the program. Savall seemed to hit his stride as the music got comfortably into the 17th century and earlier, bringing out the growls of Marin Marais's Les voix humaines, for example, in his instrument's lowest strings.

Marais's Muzettes, with its bagpipe-like drone, introduced the end of the program, focused on adaptations of various kinds of popular music. Selections from Tobias Hume's Musicall Humors included imitations of the soldier's tambour, involving strikes with the wood side of the bow, and other army sounds like trumpets. The title bell of John Playford's La Cloche sounded in a rare example of left-hand pizzicato, and in a brilliant closing set from the Manchester Gamba Book, two middle strings were crossed on the bridge to allow Savall to play an octave drone. These tunes, Savall explained, were likely first played on bag pipes and other folk instruments, but the arrangers had appropriated and refashioned them, not simply playing them without alteration.

One of these tunes, cast like a fast-moving reel, was not more than a step or two away from the feel of American bluegrass. An encore underscored the two-way nature of the road between learned and popular, with an Irish tune from the Ryan Collection, collected from oral traditions at some point in the first half of the 19th century. It fit quite genially with the same crossed-string tuning on Savall's viol.

1 comment:

elfpix said...