Tuesday 15 December 2015

Musical tour - Jordi Savall and Hesperion XXI at the Wigmore Hall

Jordi Savall
Jordi Savall
The Musical Europe 1500-1700; Jordi Savall, Hesperion XXI; The Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 13 2015
Star rating: 5.0

A brilliant musical tour of Europe with some dazzling viol playing

Distinguished viol player Jordi Savall brought his group Hesperion XXI to the Wigmore Hall on Sunday 13 December 2015 for a much anticipated programme. The theme was Musical Europe 1500-1700 with items grouped by country, Italy, England, Spain and Portugal, France and Germany, finishing with a group of late 16th century pieces which showed how style had become international. In each country there was a selection of contrasting works, pointing the way to the more international suite of the later Baroque with its German allemande, French courante, Spanish sarabanda and English jig. 

The composers in the evening included John Dowland, Orlando Gibbons, William Brade, Luys Milan, Antonio de Cabezon, Diego Ortiz, Pedro de San Lorenzo, Philidor, Samuel Scheidt, Henry Purcell, Juan Bautista Jose Cabanilles, Johann Hermann Schein, Guillaume Dumanoir, Antonio Valente as well as a number of anonymous pieces. The ensemble consisted of Jordi Savall (director, treble viol), Philippe Pierlot (alto and bass viol), Sergei Casademunt (tenor viol), Lorenz Duftschmid (bass viol), Xavier Puertas (violone), Xavier Diaz-Latorre (theorbo and guitar), and Pedro Estevan (percussion).

They started with a group of anonymous dances from Renaissance Venice. The opening dance was a stately pavane where the rich palate of colours of the viols was enlivened by a drum. Throughout the evening Pedro Estevan's discreet but imaginative percussion contributions helped bring the music to life. The Venetian dances then continued, alternating between the catchy up-tempo and the more stately.

We then moved to England, for a selection of Elizabethan consort music. There was rich melancholy in Dowland's Lachrimae Pavan with a lovely singing quality to the melody, and fine contrast was provided by the rhythmic The King of Denmark's Galliard, where the steady tempo provided space for some fabulous ornamentation from Savall. Orlando Gibbons In nomine a 4 played by just viols and violone, was sober but rather wonderful, whilst William Brade's Ein Schottisch Tanz was a complete delight in its evocation of Scots snaps in the melody and drones in the accompaniment.

From the Iberian peninsula, Luys Milan's Pavana & Gallarda was all courtly elegance yet seductive in its sound whilst Antonio de Cabazon's Differencias  sobre la Dama le demanda took a haunting, melancholy song with a real depth to the harmony, and then applied some amazing elaborations (Differencias, what the English at the time called divisions) over the top. This mainly gave Jordi Savall a chance to shine again, but the bass viol had its moment too. Diego Ortiz's Romanesca & Passamezzo moderno started almost with Greensleeves before moving more up tempo. The music here was beautifully elegant, and again we had superb elaborations from Savall. Pedro de San Lorenzo's Obra de premier tono de mano yzquierda was a deeply melancholy slow tune over which Savall's treble viol rhapsodised, and the first half concluded with Savall's deeply impressive and rather fun set of improvisations over the traditional Canarios which had a very simple basic structure providing support for his flights of fancy.

One of the amazing things about the concert was the sheer joy that the music evinced; this was technically superb playing, but it was also life enhancing and deeply enjoyable. And it seemed strange at first that the players all seemed so deeply serious and sober, the joy was all in their fingers and hands, and faces rarely broke into grins. Sitting in a gentle arc with Pedro Estevan's percussion in the centre, you felt that their posture must be a  tribute to years of Alexander Technique so wonderfully upright yet relaxed and flexible were they.

For the second half we moved to France and a manuscript compiled by Philidor (King Louis XIII's oboist) of music which he and other members of his family played for the King. We started with a lovely catchy piece, Pavane de la petite Guerre & Gaillarde with two treble viols almost duelling, and then continued through a selecting of beautifully elegant music. Whether fast or slow, and some of the music was remarkably intricate, there was a grace to it and a courtliness which seemed to conjure up the elegant and elaborate dances of the Bourbon court.

The composer Samuel Scheidt worked for most of his life in at the court in Halle, even during the 30 years war. We were treated to a selection of dances from his Ludi musici (Musical games) published in 1621. Here again we had a nice variation of tempos and styles, but it was noticeable that Scheidt's approach was always more complex and though clearly dance music there was far more going on than simple rhythm and melody.

For the final group we had composers working outside national styles. First was Purcell writing an elegant, inventive German fugue in his rather haunting Fantasia XII, then Juan Bautsta Jose Cabanilles writing an Italian Corrente, swift and elegant. Johann Hermann Schein's Allemande & Tripla was a lively piece with lots of elaborate divisions, Guillaume Dumanoir's Libertas was elegant and graceful and finally Antonio Valente's Gallarda Napolitana with its up-tempo catch rhythms and some real bravura playing from Jordi Savall.

The Wigmore Hall was full and the audience response was wholehearted, and we were treated to two encores, first a set of French Renaissance dances ending with a toe-tapping piece which made you want to get up and join in the dance, and then another William Brade piece, The King's Noyse.

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