September 10, 2008


The Viola de Gamba Meets the Man From La Mancha (VIVIEN SCHWEITZER, 9/07/08, NY Times)

PLAYING viola de gamba is “like explaining something,” Jordi Savall, the Catalan champion of this soft-spoken instrument, has said. “People will listen if you tell it in an interesting way.”

The eloquent, earthy singing lines Mr. Savall coaxes from his viol make an unforgettable impression. He resuscitates old music with the scholarly care of an archaeologist, then presents it as a vibrant, living tradition. His study of the French composer Marin Marais inspired his soulful performance on the soundtrack of “Tous les Matins du Monde,” Alain Corneau’s 1991 film.

In mid-October New York audiences will have a chance to hear one of Mr. Savall’s recent projects, “Don Quijote de la Mancha: Romances y Músicas,” for which he researched the text and musical references of Cervantes’s early-17th-century work. It is one of the many superb recordings on Mr. Savall’s Alia Vox label.

DISCOGRAPHY: Jordi Savall (
-PROFILE: The King of Spain: Jordi Savall at the Metropolitan Museum. (Alex Ross May 2, 2005 , The New Yorker)

The Met called the series “Celebrating Jordi Savall,” and, amid the usual parade of famous, anonymous maestros, here, finally, was a man worth celebrating. Savall is not only a performer of genius but also a conductor, a scholar, a teacher, a concert impresario (he founded the Hespèrion XXI, Le Concert des Nations, and La Capella Reial de Catalunya ensembles, all of which accompanied him to New York), a record-label director (his is called Alia Vox), a minor film personality (he played on the soundtrack of the 1991 movie “Tous les Matins du Monde”), and the patriarch of a formidable musical family. 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. Appropriately enough, Savall performed two of his concerts in the Medieval Sculpture Hall, in front of the great choir screen from Valladolid Cathedral, where King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella were married, in 1469.

The ancestry of the viola da gamba, or viol, can be traced to Central Asia, where bowed string instruments were first observed in the tenth century. Viol-like instruments appeared in Moorish Spain not long afterward. (Perhaps this is why Savall placed a naghma piece at the beginning of his series.) The viol looks like an ancestor of the cello, but it has more in common with the guitar or the lute. It is much lighter in construction, so that even the softest tones resonate handsomely, and its strings lie flatter on the bridge, so that a single stroke of the bow can produce rich chords. On the debit side, the viol has a hard time making itself heard in a large ensemble, which is why the more muscular cello began to supersede it in the Baroque period.

No one plays this eccentric, eloquent instrument more beautifully than Savall. Minute details of phrasing, dynamics, and timbre join together in an endlessly varied singing line. The constant interweaving of melody and chords has a pronounced hypnotic effect, as Savall and friends prove on classic recordings of such masterworks as John Dowland’s “Lachrimae,” William Lawes’s Consort Sets, and the Pièces de Viole by Marin Marais and his teacher, Sainte Colombe (the lead characters in “Tous les Matins du Monde”). Anyone who thinks that the music of several centuries ago is less emotionally immediate than the modern product needs to hear a few of these disks. The Dowland, in particular, should have been packaged with appropriate medication: “Lachrimae” was published in the same year as the Second Quarto of “Hamlet,” and it goes to the brink of the same abyss.

Savall has recaptured, as far as anyone can tell, not just the technique but also the artistic spirit of the Renaissance musicians who made the viol the center of their world. One of his guiding lights is a treatise published in 1553 by Diego Ortiz, a composer-performer from Toledo, which shows the novice gambist how to embroider a given melody or chord progression with ornaments, variations, and outright inventions. It is an art of controlled improvisation, closer to jazz than to modern classical composition. Richard Taruskin, in his monumental new history of music, describes such instructional treatises as glimpses of a “great submerged iceberg of sound”—everything about the musical past that dots and lines on parchment do not preserve.

-AUDIO: A Turkish Song of Serenity and Joy (Tom Huizenga, November 2, 2006,
Jordi Savall is the Yo-Yo Ma of the Viola da Gamba, an instrument that predates the modern-day cello. The Catalan musician spends most of his time dusting off little-known music from around the time of J.S. Bach. But for his new CD, Orient-Occident, Savall says goodbye to the baroque, picks up the ancient bowed lyre and gathers an outstanding team of Afghan, Moroccan, Israeli and Greek musicians. As Hesperion XXI, they weave together the Muslim, Christian and Jewish cultures that thrived around the Mediterranean in the 13th to 18th centuries. The traditional rebab (fiddle), oud and rubab (lutes), saz (guitar) and santur (hammered dulcimer) all play big roles in music that gently swings with off-kilter rhythms.

Savall's opening track, "Makam Rast Murass'a usul Duye," is a very old Turkish tune, with a jaunty rhythm and a slithering melody. Two ouds and the santur play the music in unison, with Savall hovering above, ornamenting the line with his lyre. The piece is written in the Turkish scale "rast," one that's meant to induce both joy and serenity.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at September 10, 2008 8:00 AM
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