The subtitle of this concert is: From the Ancient to the New World. This expresses in concise form one of the major projects of the great viol-player and doyen of early music, the Catalonian Jordi Savall. As most listeners will be aware, the Early Music movement has since its inception over 50 years ago attempted to revive, with historically informed performance practice, music that had been forgotten from the 18th and preceding centuries, mainly in Europe. Uniquely among its great exponents, Savall has sought to achieve this partly by understanding that many of the traditions of performance which have been lost in Europe have been preserved in Latin America. Simply put, just as Iceland has preserved a 10th century form of the Danish language, so Mexico and other Latin American countries have preserved a 16th century form of Spanish musical language. There, what is ancient is new.
Nowhere is this project more vividly imagined than in Hesperian XXI's collaboration with the Mexican group Tembembe Ensamble Continuo. This collaboration takes the melange of musical traditions – various native American, West African (from the slave trade) and Iberian – and performs traditional songs and Mexican notated music from the 16th and 17th centuries in a musical idiom similar to that which can be heard in oral traditions in Mexico today. Their collaboration imports into this mix a huge repertoire of ltalo-Hispanic music written by composers more or less familiar to us (Ortiz, Cabezon... ) resulting in performances which, in the words of a New York critic, are "not simply a matter of revival, but of imaginative reanimation".
The excitement implied by all this was most fully realised in the second half of the program. For me the high point of the program was the Fandango, a performance which combined music by Santiago de Murcia with traditional jarocho (a word which the extensive and erudite program note assumed that we would all know – I didn't, and looked it up just now – it means a kind of music, deemed crude by the Spanish, which comes from the Mexican city of Veracruz). The harpist Andrew Lawrence-King introduced this seductively, closing his remarks with a quotation from Casanova "After hearing this, no woman will be able to resist her lover". He then led the combined ensemble, which included the dancer Donaji Esparza, the tenor Zener Zeferino, and the soprano Ada Coronel, in a riotous yet controlled display of extreme voluptuousness.
This was followed by Jordi Savall's own display of extraordinary yet understated virtuosity, in a set of variations on the ground bass which gave its name to the program, La Folia, by Martin y Coll. To be honest, I wasn't looking forward to yet another set of variations on La Folia, having heard three sets in the first half, including two by Diego Ortiz. Ortiz is a composer much beloved of gamba players, by whom I have yet to be entranced. In this concert, the La Folia performances showed the immense rhythmic variety inherent in 16th century style, and also of course the remarkable technical possibilities of the instruments chosen. I have to say, though, that for me the lack of harmonic variety in La Folia eventually becomes a little exasperating. And I don't just mean harmonic poverty in comparison with 19th century music, but with much of the music of the 16th century – for example a composer known to all 16th century Spanish composers – Josquin des Prez.
However, Savall's rendering of y Coll's diferencias put back the diabolic madness indicated by the word Folia. I have never heard such sounds from a bass viol. In this performance we could all see how the contact with the Mexican traditions has influenced Savall. Moving seamlessly between moments of extreme lyricism to wild, over-the-edge, "unbeautiful" sounds, it was truly breathtaking.
There was more communication between the performers and the audience in the second half of the program, and this was very welcome. In the first half they simply played, danced and sang, leaving the audience to make what they could of this, to most of us, quite novel performance idiom. I found much of the first half too subdued, though the guitar solo by Xavier Diaz-Latorre, deeply exciting rhythmically, stood out. For me, Donaji Esparza's dancing, so profoundly erotic in the Fandango later, seemed altogether too subdued in the first half, though I should report that two of my friends (with much better taste than me) liked her very much.
And yet in a way it was this unusual combination of restraint and subtlety with latent intensity which characterised the whole performance style of the evening, and which indeed opened up a New World in the middle of the Old World of musical practice. In this sense it was a concert without parallel, and a precious opportunity to see the beautiful man and beautiful musician, Jordi Savall, in his workshop.
Jordi Savall, and Hesperian XXI with Tembemabe Ensamble Continuo
Folias antiguas and Criollas
Venue: Concert Hall | QPAC, Corner Melbourne St and Grey St, Brisbane QLD
Dates: 26 Feb 2018
Tickets: $79 - $105