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Making Beautiful Music: An Interview with Jordi Savall By Gary S. Dalkin


Jordi Savall was born in Barcelona where he completed his early musical studies, and in which city his record company, Alia Vox, is today based. Founder and leader of no less than three major early music ensembles, Savall has become arguably the world's foremost exponent of the viola da gamba, while the success of the 1991 film on the soundtrack of which he worked, Tous Les Matins du Monde made him a classical music superstar. I spoke to him in August 2000 about his music in general and particularly about his recent projects. I asked first how he became interested in early music.

Well, I first started to sing, and I was singing for seven years, polyphonic music, plainchant, which made me have a certain taste for this type of music. I was playing cello, and playing not only normal repertoire, but pieces by Bach, Marais, Simpson, that were not so often played. Music that was originally written for the viola da gamba. Later I realised this was a very nice instrument too.

In 1974, with his wife the soprano Montserrat Figueras, Savall co-founded Hesperion XX (now Hesperion XXI), and later two other ensembles, La Cappella Reial de Madrid, and Les Concert du Nations. He explained the reason behind having three different groups, with sometimes overlapping personnel.

Hesperion XX was founded as a chamber group with Montserrat Figueras as solo singer, myself with viola da gamba, then lute, flute, percussion and several instruments like harpsichord viol consort. It was a chamber group for mainly Renaissance repertoire, and mediaeval repertoire, with some detours for things like English consort music or French baroque. Some years later I was becoming more and more interested in vocal repertoire, especially of Spain and Italy, and we started to work with different singers and we founded in 1987 the Cappella Reial, which is basically a vocal group which can go from four singers to twenty or thirty singers for works like the Bach B minor mass or some Spanish polyphony.

Then, while we are working with this vocal orchestra, and want to record important vocal pieces where you need the baroque orchestra - the Mozart requiem, the B minor mass - we created Les Concert Des Nations as a baroque orchestra founded with a majority of Latin players. Musicians from Spain, Italy, France, but also from Argentina and other South American countries, Switzerland and elsewhere. It's dominated more by musicians with a very Mediterranean temperament. The individual is always present so that the orchestra sounds almost more like a big chamber group. Even the last viola will play like he is the first viola.

We spoke about the new disc of Elizabethan Consort Music, The Teares of the Muses 1599 (Alia Vox AV 9813) by Anthony Holborne. I asked what attracted him to the composer.

Well Holborne was a typical composer involved in many different activities, but it's a very interesting anthology because it is one of the first to systematically develop the consort of viols in the dance form. And I think his fantasy, his sensitivity, makes him one of the most important viol consort composers of this period. I think the majority of these pieces by Anthony Holbourne can support very good comparison with Dowland. It is a very beautiful moment of poetical music and it is important people can discover this type of music. It makes for a calm conjunction of beautiful melodies, beautiful counterpoint, and beautiful harmony. The melodic movement of the voices is absolutely beautiful. Also the sense of the different type of dances, the character - sometimes it's a popular song, sometimes a very popular dance - the mix of pavans, galliards, almaines, is really extraordinary. It is important for me because I am only interested in beautiful music.

Asking if there were plans for more Holbourne, Jordi Savall explained that it may be possible to record a programme of music for broken consort, but that over the next year he would be concentrating on two discs of music related to William Byrd. Talk turned to Diáspora Sefardi (Alia Vox AV 9809 A+B), Hesperion XX's wonderful 2CD set of mediaeval Jewish music released earlier this year.

Jordi Savall made some comparisons with a set of similar repertoire recorded in the mid-70's and now available as a 2 CD set on Virgin under the title Music From Christian and Jewish Spain 1450-1550.

There is a big difference in the approach of the style of each piece, in the sensitivity of the improvisation; sometimes a piece would be four minutes in the recordings of 1974-6, and now it's eight minutes. The depth of the research, the knowledge of this music, and that we have an integration of musicians for Iraq, Bosnia, Israel etc. who specialise in this type of music, makes a very clear evolution. It is more poetical in a certain way; when we did the records in the 1970's, I would say we were much more… revolutionary (laughs). Then we had all been there in Paris in May of '68. I think one recording is different from the other because now we are different also.

On the changes and development of the early music revival over the past 30 years, Jordi Savall had this to say.

Well I think it is a very positive evolution in many aspects. There are many, many young groups now devoted to this sort of music and the audience has increased a lot in all the countries of the world. On the other side of things, there are not enough conservatories for learning this music properly, and this is one aspect that with have to take care in the next years to make possible that there are opportunities to study. There are no conservatories in Spain, in Italy, and very few in other countries except Switzerland, Belgium, Holland or Germany, and just now starting in France. We must create conservatories, because it's a big repertoire, and you can not put 600 years of music history in a small section of a normal conservatory.

As Jordi Savall has long championed unfamiliar repertoire, I asked if he was still finding unknown music he wanted to perform and record. Laughing, he said,

Oh, sure - we will not discover a new Bach! But there is a lot of beautiful music to discover. Music from Spain and France, from the Renaissance, which has never been played since this period. It is a responsibility, because music only exists when the singer sings or the instrumentalist plays. It is a big responsibility for us to realise the memory of all these beautiful things as they exist in the scores or the manuscripts.

With is being the Bach 250 Anniversary I enquired whether there were to be any further additions to the Bach catalogue.

We have recorded the Musical Offering, but because we have found there are enough Bach records this year we will release it early next year.

Speaking about the on-going series of recordings of various versions of the mediaeval Song of the Sibil , we discussed whether Savall found any personal religious feeling in the music, or whether the power came purely from the sound…

For us this is something in our roots. We have sung this music when we were children, we have also sung it in a very typical religious context. I think music with beauty, but without spirituality, is nothing. To reach a really intense dimension you have to mix both beauty and insight, it's what we reach when we find this spiritual dimension of music; it's absolutely fantastic. We can have the big pleasure of doing dance music, or secular music, but works like the Officium Defuntorum by de Morales, or the Vespers by Monteverdi or the Cantigas de Santa Maria, they give us an extra dimension. But also the same in the Sefardi songs, it is secular text but you can feel a fantastic emotion in this music.

I asked how it was to work with his wife and now, his daughter, the harpist Arianna Savall. He explained,

Working with people that you love and understand it is possible to appreciate a very special dimension in the music. But at the same time is difficult to be the musician and the father (laughs). Like when your daughter tells you, why did you wait 20 years to tell me this! (more laughter). With the normal musicians this will not be the case!

On the beautiful 'digipack' covers which grace the Alia Vox CDs.

You can not present this music in plastic. From the very first day we start looking in museums and specific art books to see how the style of the packaging can go well together with the music. The Anthony Holbourne disc was difficult to do because it is not easy to find musical themes in the paintings in this period in England. We have the carving with the muses*, Terpsichore; you have the atmosphere and you are prepared to hear something which comes from the same sensibility. I think the more we are presented with music from the internet, the more important it becomes that music you have as something physical is presented as something special. That there is a reason to have this product in your hands.

* A detail from "Apollo and the Muses", Chatsworth circa 1570 - Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire

© 2000 Gary S. Dalkin

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