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GRAMOPHONE (11/2011)
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Words by Fabrice Fitch  




Jordi Savall’s study at his home in Barcelona is more like a scholar’s than a busy musician’s: first editions of 17th-century treatises line the walls, and tables are piled high with books on a plethora of subjects — the trial of Joan of Arc, the slave trade, Erasmus, War and Peace. . . and, of course, scores of scores.

The Spanish early music specialist, simply but stylishly dressed and looking a good decade younger than his 70 years, readily admits to spending a great deal of time documenting in libraries, and it’s clear that he relishes the activity for its own sake. But, as with any practising musician — Savall is renowned both as a violist and musical director — this taste for bookish knowledge has a particular slant.

‘People are surprised sometimes that we regularly put out three discs a year,’ he tells me in his softly spoken, bass tones, ‘but I’ve been reading and researching ideas for projects since 1965, when we started out, and that was 11 years before our first recording. Some of these projects I carry around with me for 20 years before they come to fruition, and some will have involved hundreds of hours of reading books and choosing pieces. But all that time explains why we’re so productive now.’

Time, indeed, is a recurring theme in Savall’s conversation: the time it takes to record, to really get to know the style of a particular repertoire, and to mull over ideas and give them substance. Here is a musician whose lifetime quest for musical perfection and whose painstaking patience mean that no project is ever rushed. His measured manner is surely a reflection of this professional outlook, and must have served him well over his long and distinguished career.

In recent years, Savall and his wife — his muse and collaborator, the soprano Montserrat Figueras — have issued more and more ambitious projects with their ensemble, Hespèrion XXI, on their (literally) in-house label, Alia Vox. Some of them, such as the forthcoming Mare nostrum, to be released in early December, run to two or three CDs, and are lavishly illustrated in coffee-table-book format and scrupulously documented. The formula, something of a novelty in itself, is designed to show how music participates in a wider cultural and social life. As Gramophone readers will know, these projects have increasingly taken the form of collaborations with musicians from cultures beyond Western Europe. Another project now nearing completion is The Sublime Porte, the second of two discs centred on Istanbul and its earlier incarnation, Constantinople, and due for release in November. So, not unfittingly over a cup of green tea, I first ask Savall how this interest in non-Western music came about.

‘When Montserrat and I worked on our first project together in the 1970s, we were conscious that Spain’s medieval heritage resulted from the co-existence of three distinct cultures — Christianity, Judaism and Islam — which you can still see today , in the language, the architecture, and Spanish and Catalan culture generally,’ he says. ‘But we were also deeply shocked at Spain’s role in suppressing those cultures, by expelling the Jews in 1492 , and the Muslims — even converted ones — in 1609. We felt it our duty to make a space for these cultures alongside more familiar repertoire. So our very first project for EMI Reflexe (1976) was a double album of medieval secular Spanish and Jewish music. We also realised that in this repertoire the modern distinction between high and low culture can be very misleading. The reason some of these powerful popular melodies survived or migrated from one culture to another was that they fulfilled an expressive need. They are simply beautiful, and deserve to be heard.’

Within the burgeoning early music community, this attitude met with a certain resistance but, undeterred, Savall, Figueras and their ensemble (they added de last numeral of ‘XXI’ at the turn of de century) have continued to explore Europe’s cultural roots alongside their recordings of more ‘mainstream’ early repertoire. Occasionally their tours have resulted in musical travels even further afield, prompted by meetings with musicians in de Near-East, South America and Japan.

Seemingly closer to home, the Mare nostrum project takes its title from the Romans’ name for the Mediterranean, ‘our sea’. But, as Savall explains, that sea is shared by several cultures. ‘We’ve experimented in recent years with programmes combining Spanish, Moroccan, Sephardic, Italian and Provençal music, working with musicians who’ve collaborated with us for many years, from all round the Mediterranean basin. With this latest book-CD we’re reflecting on the idea of the Mediterranean itself.’

Given Savall’s preoccupation with the many cultures of Spanish lands, this broader theme has an obvious relevance. ‘There’s a historical narrative underpinning the programme, and a musical one as well. Each piece illustrates or stands for a significant event or moment in the history of the region.’ For Savall, much of that history is the interaction between its cultures, sometimes amicable, sometimes antagonistic. ‘We’re currently working with two possible presentations: thematic, which is more like a concert programme; and historical, organised in chronological order. In the latter, the programme begins with three expository tracks introducing the Christian, Jewish and Islamic cultures, inviting the listener to perceive the differences as well as the similarities. Then the history of the region unfolds in a series of chapters.’

But what of the musical narrative? ‘Well, there are two CDs’ worth of new recordings and about one of music recorded previously,’ he says. ‘We make up different orders and playlists in iTunes and listen to them in different environments (even in the car), and on different types of equipment, to get a real sense of the sound and musical trajectory. That way we can judge what works and in what best order.’ Savall shows me a printout of Mare nostrum’s current state, which looks very like a storyboard. I notice that some of the main events have no music associated with them, either because Savall hasn’t decided which piece to use, or because there’s no music corresponding to the event. Might that reflect the reality of research, and of our knowledge of early music, which includes many gaps and lost works? Savall agrees. ‘That’s one reason why I always list my sources, so that others — musicians and others — can follow up on what we’ve done and continue exploring for themselves.’ The dynamic between personal reflection, documentation and musical practice is crucial to his creative approach.

An idea similar to Mare nostrum underlies The Sublime Porte, which was the point of contact in Constantinople between the ruling Ottoman Court and a great variety of foreign cultures and their music: Greek, Armenian, Sephardic Jewish, some of which has been transmitted in writing, and some orally. But compare Hesperion XXI’s performances of Turkish music with traditional performances of the same repertoire, and you hear real differences.

Here again, Savall’s knowledge of early sources led to a surprising approach: ‘We were working on Ottoman courtly 17th- and 18th -century pieces, which are usually performed very slowly nowadays. During the preparation and rehearsals I found the slow tempos problematic, and was reminded of many examples in early music of very fast dance tempos, for example in 16th-century Folias, Chaconnes, Menuets etc, which became much slower over the next 200 years. Then I remembered a passage from Rousseau’s Dictionnaire, in which he discusses how to dance the minuet.’ At this point, Savall gets the original edition of Sébastien de Brossard’s Dictionnaire off the shelf, and compares it with Rousseau’s of nearly a century later. He reads me the passages in question, in which Rousseau quotes Brossard but contradicts him, saying that the Minuet isn’t a fast dance at all, as Brossard claimed, but actually the slowest of all the dances used at court. ‘So I imagined a similar evolution in the Ottoman Court, convinced that the tempo around 1700 was faster than in the l9th or the 2lst centuries, and I asked the Turkish musicians we were working with whether we could try playing faster. At first they were hesitant because they’d always performed those pieces at a certain speed, but after working on them for some time, they really enjoyed playing them at a faster and lighter tempo. When we performed our concerts in Istanbul, it sparked a real polemic between the traditionalists and musicians interested in the revival of the ancient Ottoman music.’

These collaborations led Savall to reconsider basic aspects of his music-making in a manner of which his younger self would surely have approved. When preparing for the Istanbul projects, this included learning to use different tuning systems which are very precisely notated — for example, in the work of the 18th-century musician Dimitrie Cantemir whose treatise inspired the first of Savall’s Istanbul projects. And this has, in turn, caused him to think anew about tuning when returning to Western repertories. I suggest to Savall that his attitude is very different from so-called ‘crossover’. For him, it’s a question of ethics. ‘It’s a matter of dialogue, of respect for the other. With crossover, there’s an imbalance between the two components, as when a classical artist decides to play Indian music, say, or to play Bach on a non-Western instrument. Crossover is the opposite of an intercultural dialogue, which must be based on a mutual respect for the differences between cultures of the West and the Near-East; we’re convinced that it’s very important to promote a real intercultural dialogue within a social and cultural context. In our projects — like another recent success, Jérusalem — Muslim, Jewish and Christian musicians all play their own music, and we play together in our troubadours, Cantigas or Trecento repertoire, because the musical languages of the West and Near-East were very similar in the Middle Ages. If we introduce an ud [ an Islamic plucked string instrument, from which the lute was derived] into a crusading song, it’s because these instruments were around at the time. The combination of styles and sounds respects the musical context.

Besides, these exchanges were far more fluid than they are now.’

As another example of his belief in culture as an agent of social change, Savall cites Daniel Barenboim’s work with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. ‘The project is in itself extraordinary, but difficult to realise in true harmony because of the dramatic political and human context, and also because of the very different musical traditions and styles between Palestinians and Israelis. But for all these reasons, it’s all the more necessary to make a success of it.’

In recognition of his efforts in that direction, Savall was made an EU Cultural Ambassador for Inter-Cultural Dialogue in 2008, and, jointly with Monserrat Figueras, ‘Artists for Peace’ as part of UNESCO’s Goodwill Ambassadors programme.

Looking beyond Mare nostrum, peace is both the subject and the title of their next project. ‘Da pacem’, he says, ‘will be a proper book, so to speak, containing texts on peace by a number of distinguished writers, and reproductions of paintings by the contemporary Catalan artist Antoni Tàpies, some of which have never before been published. Musically, it will be just as wide-ranging, from the plainsong ‘Da pacem’ to Arvo Pärt, and all sorts in between, including Dufay, Josquin, Lassus and the instrumental music of Christopher Tye, Alfonso Ferrabosco and others.’

Clearly, Savall enjoys a degree of artistic freedom that is rare among classical performers of any stripe, let alone those specialising in early music. I imagine it’s due in part to the phenomenal success of the soundtrack he recorded for the award-winning film Tous les matins du monde (1991) starring Gérard Depardieu. As Savall recalls, his grateful bemusement still evident, it stayed at No 3 in the French charts for months while Michael Jackson and Queen vied for the top spot. But the creation of Alia Vox has allowed him not only to work just on projects dear to him, but to do so with kindred spirits, and at the pace he wants. ‘When I recorded with other labels, the worst thing you’d hear at the end of a long session was the words, “Sorry, the technician’s already left.” It could take you hours to hit your stride, to get to a point where you felt truly free. Now we’re able to do exactly what we want.’

On the subject of recording, Savall has one more dig at received wisdom. It begins with a restatement of his artistic credo, not from a social perspective this time but from that of the individual: ‘We musicians sometimes forget how powerfully what we do can act on people’s lives, how it can heal them. That’s why recording is so important, because it allows us to capture the most intense moments, and the most perfect sound. And in a concert, you’re usually less likely to achieve that. It’s like a trapeze artist who, if performing in front of a crowd without a safety net, won’t take risks. But if he’s got a safety net, he’s truly able to let go, and then he may do something extraordinary, unique, transcendental.’

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