Recording of March 2019: Hespèrion XXI & Jordi Savall Ibn Battuta: The Traveler of Islam 1304–1377

Hespèrion XXI & Jordi Savall: Ibn Battuta: The Traveler of Islam 1304–1377
Music of Afghanistan, Bagdad, China, Granada, India, Mali, Morocco, more
Alia Vox AVSA9930 (24/88.2, 2 SACDs). 2018. S.L. Sonjade, prod.; Harry Charlier, Manuel Mohino, engs. DDD. TT: 2:27:04
Performance *****
Sonics ****

Sixty years after Italian explorer and merchant Marco Polo chronicled his journey to Asia, Tangier-born Abu Abdallah Ibn Battuta (b. 1304, d. 1368–1377) spent close to 30 remarkable years traveling to what were then the four corners of the earth. Following the words of Muhammad, Prophet of Islam, to whom is attributed the dictate "Seek knowledge even unto China," Ibn Battuta was only 21 when his desire for knowledge and learning propelled him on a quest far longer and wider-ranging than Polo's.

In 1356, the Sultan of Morocco commissioned a young scholar of Andalusian origin, Muhammad Ibn Juzayy, to transcribe all of Ibn Battuta's adventures. But knowledge of Ibn Battuta's achievement was basically confined to the Islamic world until 1858, when Travels was translated into German and published. When musical polymath and viola da gamba master Jordi Savall read Margarida Castells and Manuel Forcano's 2005 translation (from Arabic into Catalàn) of Travels, he assembled a two-concert program to illustrate Ibn Battuta's adventures by mixing historically authentic music from the lands he visited with narration in English, Arabic, and French.

319rotm.250.jpgSavall's first concert of this material, performed and recorded in the resonant acoustic of the Emirates Palace-Auditorium in Abu Dhabi on November 20, 2014, chronicles Ibn Battuta's itinerary from Morocco to Afghanistan (1304–1335). The second concert, which took place in the even more resonant and remarkably clear acoustic of the Philharmonie de Paris on November 4, 2016, follows Ibn Battuta to Afghanistan, India, China, Bagdad, Granada, Mali, and back to Fez, where he died. The difference in sound of the two concerts, along with miking that lets you hear the stops of ancient woodwind instruments, add to an authentic sense of occasion that makes listening to this chronicle of Ibn Battuta's adventures a special experience. Bass lines seem more focused in the Philharmonie de Paris, but that may have more to do with the review equipment in my system right now than anything else.

The care that Savall puts into creating his weighty SACD packages—in this case, a hardbound book—commands respect. Printed on quality paper, lavishly illustrated, and filled with scholarly essays in multiple languages, Savall's book-albums are works of art. For anyone who can play SACDs, buying the physical package is a must.

While superficial listening may give the impression of a carefully programmed travelogue, more concentration reveals how nuanced each performance is. These musicians have not simply taken this music to heart; it's in their blood, and sings with their every breath and movement. For this project, Savall enlisted his Hespèrion XXI instrumental ensemble, whose membership changes as Ibn Battuta undertakes the second half of his journey. There are also three narrators, and an extraordinary group of vocal and instrumental masters from many countries. While many of the soloists will be known only to aficionados of world music, readers of Stereophile's web reviews may recognize the name of French early-music singer Marc Mauillon, whose extraordinarily agile and compelling baritone graces Harmonia Mundi's 2018 recording of Michel Lambert's (ca 1610–1696) Leçons de Ténèbres and other works.

Suffice it to say that every soloist on this recording is as musically gifted and inspired as Mauillon. After hearing the voices of Ahmed Al Saabri (Abu Dhabi), Meral Azizoglu (Turkey), Katerina Papadopoulou (Greece), tenor Lluis Vilamaj (Bacelona), and baritone Furio Zanasi (Italy), along with the voice and oud of Waed Bouhassoun (Syria) and Driss El Maloumi (Morocco), you'll know that Savall and his supporters spared no expense in assembling this ensemble. I sat transfixed, not only by the distinctive Western baritones of Mauillon and Zanasi, but also, in the foot-tapping Imperial Dance from the Empire of Mali, by the gentle voice of El Maloumi. We should all be blessed by such sweetness.

Moving on to Sardinia, the trio of Pierre Hamon on recorder, Michael Grébil on ceterina, and longtime Savall compatriot Pedro Estevan on percussion was mesmerizing in Isabella—and Lingling Yu's pipa artistry, which appears multiple times, could certainly give the justly famed Wu Man a run for her money. The massed voices of Savall's other ensemble, La Capella Reial de Catalunya, sound wonderful in the single track they appear on, and the combination of Ahmed Al Saabri's voice with the voices and instruments of Hespèrion XXI in the four-minute Sallatu Allah (Mecca) is so beautiful in its fervent devotion that it inspires the knowledgeable Abu Dhabi audience to applaud mid-concert.

There is much improvisation here. This traditional music—like all Western music up to and well into the Classical era—included considerable improvisation, and was passed down from generation to generation before being written down, always refracted through the lens of the artists at hand. Savall's artists' devotion to their crafts have ensured that Ibn Battuta: The Traveler of Islam 1304–1377 will remain an artistic and historical triumph.—Jason Victor Serinus

ok's picture

I'm inclined primarily to the kind of singular beauty. Anyway, however strange might be the feeling of confronting familiar sounds and atmospheres under the tag of "world music" nowadays, this is an exceptional JVS-approved record in every sane aspect.