Perth Festival review: Jordi Savall ·
Perth Concert Hall, 17 February ·
Review by Varnya Bromilow ·
Why do we like the music we like? Ever since I can remember, medieval/early baroque music has resonated with me in a way that I have no explanation for. I mean, sure, my forebears are from the UK (how fabulously exotic!) but my great-grandfather was making brooms not playing the viola da gamba. There is something about the melody, even the tempo of European music from the 1600’s that feels both familiar and deeply evocative to me.
Jordi Savall is a master of this style. The acclaimed Catalan musician formed the early music group, Hesperion XX in Basel, Switzerland back in 1974. (The group rebranded itself as Hesperion XXI with the change of the century.) The ensemble is renowned for its scholarship of early music from the 16th and 17th centuries, particularly that of Spanish origin. For this series of concerts, Savall has brought in Mexico’s Tembembe Ensamble Continuo as collaborators. Tembembe is a chamber group devoted to the performance of Hispanic baroque music and a form Indigenous to Mexico known as ‘son’. A love of early music is not the only common thread binding these groups – both are known for their improvisation around old melodies and their reworking of early music.
The evening began with the players filing onstage, carrying instruments largely unfamiliar to contemporary audiences. The only one I knew immediately was the harp. But apart from that, it was all one could do from pulling out one’s phone and plugging “tiny guitar” into Google. (Savall explained later – it’s called a mosquito) There was a large wooden box upon which a player sat, drumming the softest, most melodic bass notes (marimbol); a plump guitar (huapanguera); a lute with an extremely long neck (theorbo) and an array of others. And I haven’t even mentioned the horse jaw yet!
There followed a luscious assortment of songs and music from the 15th and 16th centuries, much of it improvised. Kicking off with the sublime La Spagna by Spanish composer Diego Ortiz (ca. 1510 – ca. 1570), the program alternated between early music from Spain and that of Mexico. Often, songs would follow on immediately from each other, highlighting stylistic and tonal similarities. Between others there would be a pause, allowing the musicians to change instruments and the audience to break out into rapturous applause. The Mexican contributions were frequently highlighted by the remarkable vocals of two singers – Ada Coronel and Zenen Zeferino. From the first strains of Zeferino’s emotive tones, the audience was putty in his hands. The play between the two singers was gorgeous to watch – these are sensual songs – and served to highlight the cool reserve of the European repertoire.
It goes without saying that musicians of this calibre are incredible to watch, but what was particularly noticeable about these groups was the camaraderie amongst the players. (I guess when you’ve been playing together for 30-plus years, you’d want to get along.) Harpist Andrew Lawrence-King (who, if you can picture it, would have been voted Person-Most-Likely-To-Play-Baroque-Harp in high school) is Hesperion’s resident jester, frequently prompting stifled giggles from guitarist Xavier Dias-Latorre. Dias-Latorre, is should be said, is an astonishing player, extracting the most intricate melodies from his early baroque guitars with extraordinary ease.
We were entranced. I expected the standing ovation at the performance’s conclusion, but not the whistling and foot stomping! There’s nothing better than seeing a silver-haired elderly woman waving her arms and stamping her feet for more medieval music. It made my festival. Who says classical music is dying?
Photo by Toni Wilkinson