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Originally published Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 10:10 AM

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Brilliance from Jordi Savall, Hesperion XXI

A review of Jordi Savall and Hesperion XXI, which performed with Mexican folkloric group Tembembe Ensamble Continuo at Town Hall Seattle on Friday night.


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Jordi Savall is a living legend. The EMG is smart to bring him in whenever possible... MORE

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The music heard Friday night at the Early Music Guild’s concert at Town Hall Seattle, from Hispanic composers of the Old World and the New, covered a wide time span. It stretched from 1510, when Diego Ortiz and Antonio de Cabezón were born, to 1739, when Santiago de Murcia died. To perform their work, EMG wisely brought Jordi Savall and his Hesperion XXI ensemble, and Mexico’s Tembembe Ensamble Continuo. Savall is a man deeply versed in all the styles practiced in — and beyond — that wide range of years.

My own admiration for Savall’s talents began in a context close to the end of the series of centuries that his expertise covers. The recording he made of Handel’s “Water Music” with another ensemble he founded, Le Concert des Nations, is perhaps the finest and certainly the most thrilling account of that work I have ever heard. Friday’s repertoire came mostly from much earlier, but Savall’s command — as his reputation led me to expect — was every bit as impressive in this delightful collection of older music.

The program was centered on treatments of the traditional theme known as the Folia, so the works we heard possessed a clearly perceptible family likeness. They were also for the most part simple in form: a tune of dancelike cut, followed by a sequence of — not exactly variations in the Classical sense — but variants, glosses, or “diferencias” based on it. Yet the rich instrumental variety and supreme artistry of the performances precluded any danger of boredom for the packed and highly responsive Town Hall audience.

For reasons that were not clear, there was a small group of Celtic pieces embedded in the Spanish and Latin American program. The first of them, the traditional Scottish “Regents Rant,” Savall dispatched — solo — with dazzling virtuosity on the bass viol. Indeed, though endowed at 72 with gray hair and beard and an air of near-unshakable seriousness, Savall seems to have preserved his legendary technique to perfection, and along with all that seriousness, his playing never misses an opportunity to entertain or even amuse.

Savall’s partners on stage were in every way worthy of him. The joint ensemble was in a sense a mixed one, since, while the director played treble and bass viols, one member of the Mexican group, Ulises Martínez, played a violin, the viol family’s successor, which was only just beginning to exist in the 16th century. Martínez and his Tembembe colleagues Enrique Barona and Leopoldo Novoa, together with Hesperion members Xavier Díaz Latorre, Andrew Lawrence-King and David Mayoral, all wielding a panoply of instruments too numerous to name, and giving lusty voice when occasion arose, contributed to an ensemble of stunning brilliance and keen sensitivity.

This fascinating EMG program was presented in collaboration with Acción Cultural Española, a public institution whose aim is “to further and promote Spain’s culture and heritage.” It offered the salutary experience of returning in spirit to an age before the gulf between “serious” and “popular” music opened up: a time when music was simply music.

Bernard Jacobson: bernardijacobson@comcast.net



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