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Classical blues: Jordi Savall of Hésperion XXI.

Another Kind of Early Music

By B.A. Nilsson

Hésperion XXI

Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, Lenox, Mass., July 12

The Florence Gould Auditorium is a lovely, lively venue in handsome Seiji Ozawa Hall, itself overlooking one of Tanglewood’s lush lawns. Folks in the very full house were obviously pleased with the performance, but this wasn’t really the place for the program presented by Jordi Savall’s Hésperion XXI.

The Sephardic diaspora gave us a rich series of songs, both instrumental and vocal, from one of the richest musical melting pots of antiquity—15th-century Iberia. The songs are plaintive, sometimes sarcastic, always deeply affecting, characterized by a melisma-rich minor-key modality.

Which is why this concert should have been given in a blues club. And when percussionist David Mayoral got two or three drums going, his fingers a blur over the different-sized skins as in “Nastaran,” a song from Sofia, we’d clearly settled into a boozy, late-night groove.

An instrumental from Jerusalem titled “Hermoza muchachica” began with solo recorder (played by Pierre Hamon, who switched among several flutes and recorders during the performance); soon Begoña Olavide joined in on psaltery and Dimitri Psonis added strokes on the santur, a hammered dulcimer precursor, before Savall added vielle (a viola-like instrument held and bowed in the lap like a cello) and Driss El Maloumi went to town on the oud, an early lute.

The performers then took turns on solo breaks, backed by rhythmic accompaniment, between ensemble choruses, a pattern that persists today in jazz performances. Although the excitement level was muted by the formality of the setting and the sit-on-their-hands audience, this was stirring stuff, music born in multicultural richness and nurtured throughout the Middle East and Europe as the post-Columbian diaspora took hold.

Savall and his wife, vocalist Montserrat Figueras, have a fantastically varied early-music repertory with the various groups they front, and have been studying and performing this particular program for well over 30 years, offering two recordings along the way (the most recent is a two-disc set on Savall’s Alia Vox label, which presents most of the material played at the Tanglewood concert).

Figueras’s voice is magnificently suited to these songs. She made a startling entrance high in the second balcony of the hall, El Maloumi beside her to accompany “Pregoneros van y vienen,” a song from ancient Sarajevo that tells the story (firmly rooted in the Child Ballads) of the young woman who goes to war disguised as a man, and returns as far less of an innocent.

Thereafter, she stood among the ensemble, a serene figure who came to life as she inhabited the character of each of her songs, from the arrogant moor of “El moro de Antequera” to the sardonic mother whose lullaby, “Nani, nani,” carries a bitter prognostication of the boy’s destiny.

That song started with a lament from solo flute, soon joined by soft tremolos on rebec and oud. The melisma-rich vocal was colored, in what would become a blues tradition, by instrumental response: “Ay, dúrmite” (“Yes, sleep”), crooned Figueras, and the flute cried back with a chilling wail.

In this repertory, ornamentation and improvisation are two hallmarks of virtuosity. Figueras is particularly deft at coloring the melodic lines of her ballads with affecting turns and trills, supported by a sensitive ensemble that knew just how to support her at a given moment.

Similarly, the instrumentalists—each of whom has an international career apart from this group—played with the easy give and take of a seasoned ensemble, launching many of the numbers with an improvisatory introduction and taking solos with a dexterity you don’t always associate with early music.

The instruments, which also included rebec and lira (both held in the lap and bowed) and morisca (an early guitar), evolved into more robust, hall-filling designs. The softer sound of this ensemble lent a more intimate feel to the proceedings, which added its own quality of excitement.

“La Reine Xerifa mora” was characteristic of the instrumentals. It began slowly with long tremolo notes on rebec and oud, punctuated by the swish of a tar, a large bodhrán-like drum with a wide variety of sound. Mayoral soon struck a more regular rhythm, and a syncopated rebec melody was echoed by oud and morisca and flute before the psaltery picked up the melody and varied it. The finish echoed the into, back to soft tremolos for a pianissimo finish.

This program presented songs from one of the most fascinating periods in musical history and, while I wished for more in the way of program notes or scholarly introductions, I couldn’t have been more thrilled by the performances themselves. Jordi Savall and Hésperion XXI appear all too rarely in this neck of the woods, so it was a privilege to witness this concert.

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