Jordi Savall Illustrates History with Music

Jordi Savall, the gifted viola da gamba player and ensemble founder who, together with his late wife, soprano Montserrat Figueras, infused early music with inestimable life and color, has released his 16th high-resolution musical history book for Alia Vox. As one might expect from an artist dedicated to promoting music as the great unifier, the 37 tracks, copious illustrations, and five comprehensive essays on the two-hybrid SACD set, Venezia Millenaria 700–1797, along with its copious illustrations and five comprehensive essays in six languages, explore the history of the water-surrounded refuge that, over the course of a millennium, became home to, in the words of Victorian era critic John Ruskin, "the only European people who appear to have sympathized to the full with the great instinct of the Eastern races."

Augmenting the forces of his three ensembles—Hespèrion XXI, La Capella Reial de Catalunya, and Le Concert des Nations—with four superb "Oriental musicians" and the Greek Vocal Ensemble Orthodox/Byzantin under cantor and director Panagiotis Neochoritis—Savall recorded concerts given in the University of Salzbourg's Abby de Fontroide in Vienna and TivoliVredenburg in Utrecht, Holland. Astounding in breadth, the program begins with an 8th century instrumental fanfare meant to celebrate the birth of Venice, and ends with Savall's musically satisfying but nonetheless eyebrow-raising cut and paste of a four-voice setting of French text by Adolphe Joly onto excerpts of the funereal Allegretto of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony and the joyful final Allegro from his Fifth Symphony.

Assuming you have not fled this page in horror at thoughts of Beethoven revised, the musical ensembles alternate secular and sacred excerpts of music from Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and other sources. As enlightening as the similarities and contrasts may be, what is most striking from the audiophile perspective is the huge range of color and texture the musicians draw from instruments as diverse as the oud, duduk, sackbut, theorbo, guitar, and medieval harp. The variety of percussion, gongs, and clanging instruments is vast, and the sonic contrasts between striking, plucking, strumming, and bowing ear-opening. Although the microphones, and or recording decisions deliver the sounds of instruments and voices with heightened polish, their jewel-like beauty, captured within two cavernous acoustics is a thing of wonder.

Even though the longest track on the recording—Monteverdi's epic-defining Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda—lasts less than 17-minutes, and most selections are in the 2–4 minute range, excerpts of overtone chanting and sacred drones from multiple religions offer ample opportunities to trance out. What keeps the attention focused is the fascinating musical cross-pollination between Byzantine, Christian, North African, Armenian, Ottoman Empire, Greek, French, Jewish, and German cultures.

While most of the material is handled with great respect for authenticity, improvisational freedom and instrumental choices add Savall's stamp to virtually everything. For an absolute hoot, do not miss his adaptation of the famous Alla turca Allegretto from Mozart's Piano Sonata No.11, KV331. While Savall has made any number of recordings in which traditional orchestration is followed to a "T," he settles for anything but a piano in the context of this musical melting pot. To find out what he does, you must listen to either the SACDS or 24/88.2 files that are downloadable from multiple sites.

I won't pretend that everything on this recording is perfect. The voices of La Capella Reial de Catalunya's soprano and mezzo-soprano have their limitations, for example. But the extraordinary opportunity to learn about and hear how the music of Venice reflected the politics and culture of its creators during 1100 years of peace and disruption is not be missed. (Nor is the opportunity to discover how well your system can handle it all.) I highly recommend this remarkable contribution to understanding from the indefatigable Savall.

BradleyP's picture

Everything Jordi Savall does is both beautiful and important. The man is a world treasure. He knows how to make music that matters and record it commensurately. Savall is at the top of my list of people I'd want to have lunch with.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

and he is a joy. Phrases and notes are similarly well pondered, and expressed from the heart.

jimtavegia's picture

Has to be in the top 10.

PAR's picture

Yes, knockout image isn't it? It is the marriage of Venice to the sea ceremony ( Spozalizio del Mare) which has been taking place there for a thousand years. The best known painting of it is by Canaletto but that is from the mid-18th century. This one looks from the style to be earlier, I'll guess 17th century? I have not come across it before.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Leandro Basssano (1557-1622) Les rives des esclaves.
Madrid, Real Academia de las Bellas Artes de San Fernando Collection: DeA Picture Library

The discs themselves are tucked into pages with artwork by Luca Carlevarijs (1663-1730) and Antonio Canaletto (1697-1768). The latter is the Vue de Bassio de Saint-Marc, Venise, 1750, from the Iffizi Gallery in Florence. I can't begin to list all the artwork in the 300+ book. Jordi Savall must devote a significant portion of his concert income to these projects.

PAR's picture

Thanks Jason. With the Doge's barge as a major element I thought it was the Marriage of Venice to the Sea ceremony.

The title of the work serves to remind us that as well as the appalling enslavement of Africans, Europeans living in coastal areas were also subjected to slavery by raiders from the North African region. Even people as far away as the west coast of England were victims. The picture I now believe may be of the celebrations welcoming back ransomed Venetian slaves. Further information is welcome.

Let us not forget that slavery is not something that disappeared in the 19th century but is something which continues today.

Kodak805's picture

I know from previous experience Savall's productions never disappoint. Can anyone answer if these are live public performances?

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

"Savall recorded concerts given in the University of Salzbourg's Abby de Fontroide in Vienna and TivoliVredenburg in Utrecht, Holland" = live.'s picture

This review jogged memory of one of my all-time favorite live recordings of early & baroque music....a 3-CD offering of Les Arts Florissants / Dixieme Anniversaire, led by William Christie (Harmonia Mundi HMA-1901316.18....most enjoyable.

AntonioJMcMillan's picture

This is an excellent article. I recommend using new teaching methods.