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Jordi Savall

Friday, December 9, 2016


Meeting in Music

October 29

Music in Occitania at the time of the Albigensian Crusade

Meeting in MusicLe Royaume oublié – La Tragédie Cathare Montserrat Figueras, Pascal Bertin, Marc Mauillon, Lluís Vilamajó, Furio Zanasi La Capella Reial de Catalunya Hesperion XXI Jordi Savall Alia Vox AVSA9873 A/C (2009) [flac, cue, log, scans of the book] This CD-set brings us back in time more than usual. It begins around the year 1000 and comes to a well known composer only at the end: Dufay. The dissident Christian movement of the Cathars, or Albigenses, is the subject of the four-hour program conceived by Jordi Savall, using mostly music of the troubadours of Occitania (south of France) where Catharism spread. The songs, while not Catharist, have been often composed at the courts which were trying to maintain their independence from the King of France in the same way the Cathars were trying to survive the opposition of the official Church. On hearing the beginning of the first CD, so various, you may be wondering what place that music belongs to. Well, you must think about the presence of the Arabs in Europe and their fruitful cultural exchange with the Jews. Would you believe this happened? Although the idea of providing the liner notes in seven languages is certainly part of the program, I had to choose: the full scans are given only for MIMIC official language, English. The following is an excerpt from the book. The principal sung text in the present recording were chosen primarly on the basis of their poetic and musical interest, as well as their relevance to the various historical events. In this context, we should single out the “first” troubadour, Guilhem de Peitieu, and the first trobairitz, the Countess of Dia, and of course the other wonderful troubadours such as Pèire Vidal, Raimon de Miraval, Guilhem Augier Novella, Pèire Cardenal, Guilhem Montanhagol and Ghilhem Figueira. In the case of the songs for which no music is extant, we have followed the practice of borrowing melodies by other composers such as Bernat de Ventadorn, Guiraut de Bornheilh, and other anonymous authors, thus emulating a very widespread practice in medieval poetry, a fact that sometimes is overlooked today. […] In our approach to the Cathar liturgy, all the texts are recited in Occitan, while the text in Latin are sung in a very ancient form of plain chant. In evoking the executions at he stake we have used a moving and dramatic combination of delicate improvisations on wind instruments of Eastern origin, such as the duduk and the kaval symbolising the souls of the victims, with the contrasting menace and mounting tension expressed by the presence of the drum rolls.

The Boston Musical Intelligencer

October 9

Soprano and Viols Shimmer for BEMF

The shimmering of five viols filled First Church in Cambridge Friday night as the Boston Early Music Festival opened its 27th-concert season, hosting the English viol consort Fretwork. Soprano Suzie LeBlanc joined them in just over half the evening’s 19 selections, by four English composers of the late 16th through the late 17th centuries: William Byrd, John Dowland, Orlando Gibbons, and Henry Purcell. In pre-concert remarks, bass viol player Richard Boothby traced the 30-year history of Fretwork., Having long admired their recordings of music written for the instrument known alternatively as the viol or the viola da gamba, I had been eager to hear them. A sizable repertoire exists for combinations of two to seven such instruments, which differ from members of the violin family in the greater number of strings (six or seven) and the use of frets (hence the name “Fretwork”). In addition, all sizes, including the smallest or treble viol, are held upright in the lap or on the knees, rather than on the shoulder. Cultivated by wealthy amateurs in early modern England, the instrument was revived in the 20th century, when it again became a favorite of amateurs. Perhaps Boothby was right to complain that, before Fretwork’s founding, viol playing often functioned at a “low level,” with “painful” intonation and questionable coordination of ensemble, even though Fretwork had been preceded by fully professional groups, such as the Jay Consort of Viols and various ensembles directed by August Wenzinger (teacher of Jordi Savall). Still, it proved exciting when, during the 1980s and 1990s, Fretwork released recordings of Byrd, Purcell, and their contemporaries that rendered this music with expression and drama where it needed to be, yet always clear and thought-out—and with impeccable tuning and ensemble. Of the five players present, only Boothby who has been a member of the group since the beginning, is represented on one of those CDs. The players we heard achieved near technical close perfection, but the verve and clarity that marked earlier recordings was not always evident. Suzie LeBlanc, whom local audiences know from her appearances in BEMF-sponsored operas, meshed perfectly with the viols, which is to say that her singing shared their good points as well as some less admirable features. One problem arose from the almost uniformly serious, even solemn, character of the selections. The vocal numbers focused on death, mourning, and philosophical resignation. The instrumental selections sounded equally reserved—among them seven fantasias and related pieces of which all save one were in minor keys. All four composers wrote dances, but we heard only three by Dowland—again, all in minor keys and none of them really fast, let alone light-hearted. So dark and reserved a program might have been more successful had there been some variety in the approaches taken to these selections from four generations of composers. But singer and players seem to have striven for the opposite, settling for an almost uniformly quiet manner appropriate, nevertheless, for many of the selections. Of course viols are quiet instruments, or so we are told. But Fretwork’s own recordings demonstrate how much can be done with timing, articulation, and varied types of attack, and a singer is free to express the same. Byrd and Gibbons, whose music has much in common, occupied the first half, Dowland and Purcell the second. The first of four consort songs by Byrd, “My mind to me a kingdom is,” started auspiciously with its light rendering of a witty Elizabethan text. But here and in “Constant Penelope,” “Content is rich,” and the elegy “O that most rare breast” in memory of Philip Sidney, as well as in Gibbons’s famous “What is Our Life?,” LeBlanc evidently strove more to blend with the viols than to project details of the vocal lines. Even in the first-row seat provided to a reviewer, I could not always hear the words, especially at the ends of phrases, which tended to drop off. Occasionally this was expressive, as in the elegy. But even there the absence of clear accents left inaudible Byrd’s rhythmic nuances, which reflect precisely those of the poem. Inasmuch as the notes described the singer as “replacing” Emma Kirkby in the Consorte of Musick, it is not unfair to compare LeBlanc’s interpretations with Kirkby’s, who in her recording of Byrd’s consort songs took a similarly minimalist approach to expression. Yet Kirkby nevertheless introduced subtle emphases on certain words and found ways to vary the intensity from stanza to stanza. Here this had to be done by having the viols pluck the accompaniment for one stanza of “My mind.” The pieces for instruments alone likewise suffered from indistinct articulation. From my listening point I could not hear the tune at all in Byrd’s variations on “Browning.” That was problematical in this early work, also known as “The Leaves Be Green.” It dates from an early period, when the composer was obsessed with virtuoso counterpoint involving conflicting accents and meters—almost like the 20th-century composer Elliott Carter, who acknowledged Byrd as a model. Without the audible clarity of the underlying tune, this rendition seemed shapeless if pretty by comparison to Fretwork’s 1995 recording. The magnificent five-part settings of “In nomine” by Gibbons and Byrd were similarly hobbled, the built-in acceleration in each piece a pale reflection of what it could be. (The Byrd selection, incompletely identified in the notes, was the fifth of the five-part In nomines.) I was curious to see whether my impressions were due to the acoustic of the hall at my assigned seat. So for the second half I moved to the balcony at the back of the church. There I was pleasantly surprised to hear singer and players at least as clearly as in the front row. But even the stunning modulations in Dowland’s “Lachrimae tristes”—the fourth of the seven “Lachrimae” (tears) pavans—received no distinctive response from the players. It might have seemed a good idea to use this example to introduce Dowland’s famous song “In darkness let me dwell.” But the latter was, as Boothby admitted, “turned into a consort song.” It therefore sounded just like the preceding long, slow piece in the same key. Moreover, distributing the lines of the original lute accompaniment among four viols makes explicit what the composer only meant to suggest. It also locks the singer into a somewhat stricter rhythm than otherwise. The very slow tempo taken for both numbers may seem appropriate, and the performers were impressive in maintaining a beautiful composure throughout; playing and especially singing in this manner is taxing and difficult. But I missed hearing the second of the song’s two stanzas, which was omitted. And I wonder whether the references to “hellish jarring sounds” and other poetic images could not be interpreted more forcefully at a slightly less funereal tempo. Some measure of liveliness returned in two galliards by Dowland, known as Essex’s and Noel’s—the latter in its little-known vocal version, “Shall I strive.” But the high point came in the concluding set with four of Purcell’s fantasias in four parts. These astonishing, at times almost expressionistic, works—from a set of 18 or 19 pieces for as many as seven viols—received more nuanced execution than others we heard. Most touching was perhaps no. 6 in F major, where perfectly timed pauses brought out the shattering transition to the minor mode at the beginning of the slow middle section. Also heard were nos. 12, 7, and 8, in that order, the second of these colored by Fretwork’s unflinching execution of the many cross-relations (a type of dissonance favored by English composers). What might have been a disaster, a broken string on one of the bass viols, occurred in a “timely” fashion, as Boothby observed wryly, at the very end of no. 12. This occasioned a little re-ordering of the remaining numbers, which the performers took in stride. Stock shot of Fretwork with Richard Boothby top and center. To these ears, the arrangements of all three of the Purcell songs were even less convincing than the Dowland one. “Music for a while,” “O solitude,” and “The Evening Hymn” are all “grounds”: compositions built over short repeating bass lines. The arrangements were played perfectly well, but at times they left the bass line inaudible, while distracting attention away from the voice and toward Boothby’s added counterpoint for the treble viol. Seventeenth-century viol consorts may occasionally have substituted for lute or harpsichord in accompanying such songs. But, juxtaposed against Purcell’s own striking harmony in the fantasias, these arrangements had a faux quality. For better or worse, these selections too were changed, anachronistically, into consort songs and performed with the same still beauty as the remaining ones. BEMF most considerately printed the complete texts of the vocal selections—including stanzas that were not in fact sung (in the strophic songs by Byrd and Dowland). On the other hand, I wonder whether we really needed three pages about the performers when little more than a page focused on the music. Boothby chose not to use his pre-concert talk to “expand on” his rather minimal essay, rather providing a talky history of the group, including the now-unavoidable call for donations. Perhaps few in the rather sparse audience needed it, but surely some would have found it helpful to be reminded that an “In nomine” was based on a melody from a mass by John Taverner, and that composers competed in writing virtuoso settings of that melody; or that Purcell wrote three of the program’s four fantasias within the space of eight days, the fourth following a few weeks later during the summer of 1680. Particularly when a program as is abstract as this one, it can be alienating for a less experienced listener to be confronted by puzzling titles (and more-puzzling music) without explanation. Would it hurt audience retention to insist on more informative but perhaps optional talking before the concert, especially if there is no space for proper notes in the handout? David Schulenberg’s The Music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was published in 2014 by the University of Rochester Press . He has also written books on the music of W. F. Bach and the keyboard music of J. S. Bach, as well as the textbook Music of the Baroque. A performer on harpsichord, clavichord, and fortepiano, he teaches at Wagner College and at the Juilliard School in New York City. His website is here . The post Soprano and Viols Shimmer for BEMF appeared first on The Boston Musical Intelligencer .




Tribuna musical

September 15

The Colón Ballet Gala: renovated repertoire and great dancing

Every year during recent seasons the Colón does in late August or early September an international Ballet Gala and it always combines it with a ballet of the Colón repertoire. The choices have mostly been very conservative, and it was time for a degree of renovation. This time Maximiliano Guerra chose well the Colón Ballet presentation: an attractive Nacho Duato ballet seen in June, "Por vos muero", reviewed for the Herald: Renaissance Spanish music selected by Jordi Savall and played by his group plus texts by Garcilaso de la Vega spoken by Miguel Bosé. Beautiful music and fine stylisation of old Spanish dances with attractive staging. And thirteen Colón dancers, mostly quite young and very able, in a kaleidoscope of groups and duets. The basic idea of Maximiliano Guerra, the Colón Ballet´s Director, was to ask famous companies to send couples in representative pieces of their repertoire, instead of calling on dancers picked by Guerra. That was the procedure except in one special case: the return of that magical "étoile", Alessandra Ferri, to the theatre where she danced often in memorable performances, particularly the Prokofiev/MacMillan complete "Romeo and Juliet" with Julio Bocca, certainly a unique experience for any ballet lover. And with her partner since she came back to the stage after a six-year sabbatical: Herman Cornejo; we saw both in the intimate "Chéri" at the Maipo. (You probably read days ago the detailed articles by Cristiana Visan on this fascinating conjunction of artists). The guests started with two artists from the Hamburg Ballet, ruled for decades by John Neumeier, a prolific choreographer born in 1942 and author of more than a hundred ballets. Anna Laudere, born 1983 in Latvia, and Edvin Revazov, an Ucranian of the same age, gave us two samples of Neumeier´s creativity. First, a rather disconcerting updating of "Hamlet" premièred in 1985 and revised in 1997, using music by Michael Tippett (two "ts", not one as in the hand programme). What we saw was Ophelia´s goodbye to Hamlet, for he is going away to study. But frankly, I would never have guessed that the awkward encounter was between these characters unless I was told. By the way, Tippett´s music is unfortunately rarely played here; the piece we heard was the 1954 "Divertimento on Sellinger´s Round" for chamber orchestra. Two points: all the music of the gala was recorded ; some with good sound, others with gritty, noisy reproduction. And no information was given about the works; biographies of the artists, yes. Laudere and Revazov were equally at home in this curious "Hamlet" and in the expressive view of the choreographer on "The Lady of the Camelias"; the "Pas de Deux Blanc" from Act II has Chopin´s Largo from Piano Sonata Nº3 as the meditative background. Laudere showed flexibility in portraying that declining moment of the protagonist´s life, with her whole body seeming to lose all strength. And Revazov supported her with sensibility and dramatic presence. Marianela Núñez is the Argentine "prima ballerina" of the London Royal Ballet and will shortly be Tatiana in "Onieguin". Partnered by the Colón´s Alejandro Parente, she danced the Pas de deux of the White Swan (Odette) from Tchaikovsky´s "Swan Lake", changing the announced "Black Swan" Pas de deux, certainly because in the Second Part she danced the "Tchaikovsky Pas de deux" by Balanchine, which uses music for the Black Swan (Odile) that wasn´t used in the 1877 première; discovered in the Bolshoi archives in 1953, Balanchine asked permission to do a ballet on it, and it was granted. She was admirable in both, her pure classical technique and noble demeanor ideal for Odette and the added variety on the Black Swan interpretation distinguishing Odile´s character. Parente´s Prince is basically a porteur, but the Prince is much more active in Act III, in which we appreciated the command and style of the Italian Federico Bonelli, also from the Royal Ballet. Elisa Badenes, Spanish, and Pablo von Sternenfels (Mexican of German descent) were brilliant interpreters of a Pas de deux from the funny and energetic ballet concocted by John Cranko on Shakespeare´s "The Taming of the Shrew" (Domenico Scarlatti sonatas much altered by Kurt-Heinz Stolze). Both have the humor and command of their body to solve the pirouettes of their amorous duel. They come from the Stuttgart Ballet, ruled by Cranko for decades until his early death. The Paris Opera Ballet sent the Pas de Deux from Nureyev´s vision of Prokofiev´s "Cinderella" danced by Laura Hecquet and Mathieu Ganio. They are accomplished dancers but –dare I say it- I found the choreography rather pale, and the music sounded harsh in a bad recording, when it is in fact very poetic. Ending both parts, Ferri and Cornejo did two contrasting pieces. "Rhapsody" is an Ashton ballet on Rachmaninov´s "Rhapsody on a theme by Paganini"; we saw a solo by Cornejo showing his splendid technique (he is First Dancer at the American Ballet Theatre) and then a duet with Ferri, in which the 53-year-old ballerina showed the same remarkable resilience of Fonteyn or Plisetskaya at similar ages. Finally, "Le Parc", on Mozart´s marvelous Adagio from Piano concerto Nº 23, is Angelin Preljocaj´s body contact duet, almost without formal steps, culminating in a kiss in which Ferri girated wildly until she seemed to be flying. Her plasticity and expressiveness found an ideal partner in Cornejo. For Buenos Aires Herald



The Boston Musical Intelligencer

July 14

Musical Connections: Ancient Spain & Modern Mexico

Whenever a body of travelers—whether soldiers, refugees, missionaries, slaves, adventurers, or any other kind of group—moves across a wide geographical distance and encounters a very different group somewhere else in the world, there is inevitably interchange of cultural ideas, which almost certainly also include music. Spain’s Golden Age in the 16th century involved travel and conquest over an enormous geographical area in Central and South America. Soldiers were followed by priests and missionaries, and slaves were carried along as well. All of them not only brought their own music to the New World, but also heard and absorbed native traditions already present there. These complex and blended traditions have lasted for centuries, with further development of course, but retaining the sense of their being essentially Hispanic in character. Celebrating this tradition, with centuries-old tunes from both the Old World and the New, the distinguished performer on the viola da gamba Jordi Savall brought Hesperion XX to Tanglewood last week, with a Mexican contemporary ensemble the Tembembe Ensaemble Continuo for a wide range of these traditional melodies in traditional and modern versions. At Ozawa Hall last Thursday, Hesperion XX consisted of three players: Savall himself, playing the viola da gamba and the treble viol; David Mayoral, percussion; and Xavier Díaz-Latorre, theorbo and guitar. The Mexican ensemble likewise comprised three: Ulises Martínez, violin, guitarra de son, and voice; Enrique Barona, gitarra huapanguera, leona, jarana jarocha 3a, mosquito, maracas, pandero, and voice; and Leopoldo Novoa, marimbol, guitarra de son 3a, jarana huasteca, quijada de caballo, and arpallanera. It may be clear from this list that f Hesperion XX chooses historical instruments of the Renaissance while the Mexican musicians play instruments largely from a folkloric heritage. Each half came in four segments, partly presenting the older music from the 16th century and its echoes from the 17th and early 18th centuries, and partly involving modern improvisation on traditional tunes. Most of these traditional tunes have a Spanish origin, although there were surprises including an improvisation on the ground or bass pattern of the English song “Greensleeves,” or one group of Celtic traditions in the New World—some traditional Scottish melodies, including one from a collection printed in Boston in 1883. Despite its late date, that collection, containing 1050 dance tunes, summarizes more than a century’s collection of popular tunes carried widely over the New World. But most of the music was derived from tunes based on well-known patterns of the Renaissance, the folia, the passamezzo antico, the passamezzo moderno, the romanesca, and the ruggiero. These form to the basis of a large repertory of Renaissance and Baroque performance practice, usually involving improvisations over the bass line. The best-known of these, without doubt, is the folia, which had a busy afterlife well into the 18th century, especially in Italy. Many of the variations performed by Jordi Savall come from a collection called Trattado de glosas (Treatise on ornamentation) by Diego Ortiz, published in Rome in 1553. In general, these begin with simple examples filling in gaps in the scale and developing faster and faster subdivisions of the notes until they become spectacularly virtuosic. This is of course the long-established specialty of Jordi Savall, whose extraordinary fingering and bowing became quite breathtaking by the ends of pieces. But there were also other types of works including music ostensibly from the Moorish tradition (Moresca), with a strong Arabic flavor in its 5/2 rhythm. Throughout the program the six performers interacted flexibly sometimes in solos for a time or duets or larger ensembles. Each half of the program built to a particularly stunning and energetic number largely improvised, and filled with the personality of the dance, such as to make it hard to keep one’s seat. When the audience at the end seemed to refuse to let the performers go, they returned to the stage for one more lengthy, brilliant, rousing fandango to send everyone home in high spirits. Hesperion XXI with Tembembe (David-Ignaszewski photo) Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997. The post Musical Connections: Ancient Spain & Modern Mexico appeared first on The Boston Musical Intelligencer .

Jordi Savall

Jordi Savall (1941) is a Spanish Catalan viol player, conductor and composer. He has been one of the major figures in the field of early music since the 1970s, largely responsible for bringing the viol back to life on the stage. His characteristic repertory ranges from Medieval to Renaissance and Baroque music, though he has occasionally ventured into the classical or even the romantic period.



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