Simple gifts

Jordi Savall & Hespèrion XXI, Sanders Theatre, October 25, 2008
By  |  November 3, 2008

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HOW MUSIC IS MADE: Savall and his ensembles could improvise from the telephone book and still be fabulous.

Friday I watched more musicians than even Gustav Mahler used to ask for assemble on stage at Symphony Hall to perform the 10 minutes of Pierre Boulez’s Notations I-IV. Saturday I watched eight members of Catalan gambist Jordi Savall’s Hespèrion XXI assemble on stage at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre to perform “Music from the Time of Cervantes.” Bigger, I concluded, is not necessarily better. Besides, Hespèrion XXI’s music had a beat, and you could dance to it.

Given the title of the program (a Boston Early Music Festival presentation), I had expected the evening to distill Savall’s 2005 book/double-CD release Don Quijote de la Mancha: Romances y Músicas. That’s what Savall and company had presented at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater the previous Monday. Instead, we got the “second” program they’d given at the Kaplan Penthouse the following night: dances from Italy, England, Spain, France, and Germany. The absence of Savall’s wife, soprano Montserrat Figueras (back home in Barcelona with a bad cold), caused some reshuffling in the first New York performance and might have contributed to what we got. It might also have explained the presence of the Boston Camerata’s Carol Lewis as an additional gambist in the line-up.

Not that Savall’s various ensembles — La Capella Reial de Catalunya and Le Concert des Nations as well as this one — couldn’t improvise from the telephone book and still be fabulous. This line-up had Savall on soprano gamba (the viola da gamba is the less muscular and more intimate predecessor of the cello) at one end and Lewis on soprano and bass gamba at the other, with Sergi Casademut (tenor gamba), Arianna Savall (double harp), Xavier Puertas (violone), Pedro Estevan (percussion), Xavier Díaz-Latorre (lute, theorbo, guitar), and Fahmi Alqhai (bass gamba) in between. The dance pulse oscillated between the stately 4/4 pavane and the leaping 6/8 gavotte, between grave and grace.

Estevan kept catching the eye, and not just with his Gandalf gray beard: he’d vary the timbre by striking his big drum with the butt of his stick, or click two pieces of wood together in a pattern that seemed to subvert, subtly, the main rhythm. For the Pedro Guerrero moresca, he played on three instruments at once, holding the big drum between his ankles, a tambourine in his left hand, and a small drum under his left armpit. You could be just as fascinated, however, watching Puertas bounce his bow off the strings of the violone (the predecessor of the double bass) to create a lilting ground. A Luys del Milà pavane and an improvisation began with Arianna Savall (Jordi’s daughter) and Díaz-Latorre duetting on harp and guitar; I wish there had been more room for those instruments, and for more small exchanges in general. Most of the selections could be found in different contexts on various Savall albums; his ability to recombine elements of his considerable repertoire into new and edifying programs is just one of his many non-musical gifts.

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