One of the most important sopranos of the early music movementtruly one of the great singers of our timehas died. Montserrat Figueras, who together with her husband, viola da gamba master Jordi Savall (left in photo), revivified vast amounts of Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque repertoire, succumbed to cancer at age 69.
Diagnosed over a year ago, Figueras continued to record and perform through August. She died at her home in Bellaterra, Spain, with her husband and children Arianna and Ferran at her side.
A strikingly beautiful woman, Figueras was possessed of a clear, shining soprano tinged with sadness. Hers was not the chaste, androgynous purity of the quintessential English early music soprano, or the sunny sound of unblemished youth; it was the sound of a knowing woman who loved, longed, and mourned with rare dignity and grace.
I shall never forget the effect Montserrat Figueras' made with her surprise entrance at a Cal Performances concert that she and her family presented at First Congregational Church in Berkeley perhaps six years ago. As the lights dimmed, we in the audience were surprised to hear a lone, radiant voice shower upon us from the balcony behind. The remarkable glow and clarity of that sound, and its haunting resonance, cut right to the heart.
Figueras' ability to convey the hopes, loves, and grief of people long past, especially the people of 16th and 17th century Spain, distinguished the large number of recordings she and her husband made with the ensembles they helped found between 1974 and 1989: Hespèrion XX (renamed Hespèrion XXI in the new millennium), La Capella Reial de Catalunya, and Le Concert des Nations. Their recordings increased in frequency after they founded the Alia Vox label in 1998. Those discs, with their costly, increasingly elaborate packaging, extremely literate liner notes, pan-nationalistic humanitarian embrace, and carefully recorded hybrid SACD multichannel sound, won a host of awards.
When I interviewed Savall in the spring of 2006, shortly before he was to guest conduct the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in the San Francisco Bay Area, I asked him how he had first met Figueras:
"We met in class, when we were both studying cello around the age of 22 or 23," he explained. "My teacher was not very comfortable with the way I played Bach. Montserrat would remain behind, listening from the hallway. When I'd leave the class, she'd always say to me very softly, 'Don't worry. You play very well.' [laughing] This was a fantastic feeling that lasted the whole day."
After using the cello to play a lot of music that was written for viola da gamba, Savall decided to explore the earlier instrument. When he eventually arrived in Barcelona, he received a call from Ars Musicae, a group in which Figueras sang. The ensemble's director told him they had a viola da gamba for him if he wanted to play it. As he later learned, the impetus for the call was a suggestion from Figueras that a young cellist named Jordi Savall might be interested in exploring the instrument.
"I first heard Montserrat sing when I was in the group," Savall said. "She was so great. She has a very natural voice, so special, and so sensitive. This was the beginning of everything [chuckling]."
The two began performing as a couple in 1966. After moving to Switzerland to continue their studies at the Music Academy and Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, they married in 1968.
One wonderful anthology that includes recordings Figueras made for a number of labels between 1976 and 2008 is La Barcha d'Amore (Alia Vox AV 9811). Her extremely accomplished technique and the haunting effect of her sound in Monteverdi's madrigal, "Lamento della Ninfa," are extraordinary. Equally captivating is the manner in which, on the album Ninna Nanna, Figueras transformed the simplest of lullabies into enduring testaments to maternal love. She is sorely missed.