Jordi Savall’s “Musical Europe” at Town Hall

Seattle’s Early Music Guild has brought enormous talent to Seattle for years, and the devoted donors have ensured that even in austere times the quality and quantity of works presented have not dwindled. Attendance certainly hasn’t dwindled either, as a full house attended last night to see Jordi Savall direct Hesperion XXI at Town Hall.

Savall’s three decades as a performer, interpreter, scholar, director, and advocate of early music have made him and his group highly sought after in the music world. He co-founded three ensembles—Hesperion XX, La Capella Reial, and Le Concert des Nations—with longtime partner and collaborator Montserrat Figueras. (The 23rd of this month will be the first anniversary of her death, I lament to say.) Hesperion remains Savall’s most recognized ensemble (and became XXI at the turn of this century) and is lauded for its objective of reconstructing lost and forgotten songs and then breathing (or perhaps plucking) new life into them. Last night, the ensemble proved just how timeless music can be when played by capable hands. Some pieces sounded startlingly contemporary.

The program was titled “Musical Europe: The Golden Age of Consort Viol Music.” The songs were presented in six sections, the first five of which were organized according to region—Italy, England, Spain, France, Germany in order. A number of short pieces were played together (sometimes without a distinct pause between them) representing a range of styles and moods from different composers (many anonymous) from each region, except for the fifth section which had four pieces from Samuel Scheidt and none other. This was itself a wise choice by Savall—a consistent and strong punctuation mark to end the journey through five regions. The sixth and final section was both epilogue and bookend: one song from each region, played in the reverse order that they were introduced—Germany, France, Spain, England, ending where the night began in Italy.

With just two exceptions, all the performed pieces were written during the 16th century when ensemble music was being developed into the styles we know today, the age of early Hauskapelle in Germany (what would in centuries to come develop into Hofkapelle and then symphonies) and courtly music commissioned by the likes of King Louis XIII and Isabelle d’Este of Mantua. These ensembles were microcosms of society at large with individual players contributing their unique talents to create a harmonious whole that one alone could not produce. This was an impulse being developed by Humanist philosophers and artists, who sought to revive non-dogmatic principles of morality and ethics from antiquity. Ensemble music was a highly regarded way of expressing these values without overt pedagogy.

The program was very well curated, despite most of it being changed (apparently after the programs had been printed). Each section had slower, moodier pieces balanced with livelier dances. The closing piece of the first section (“Italian Dances of the Venetian Renaissance”) was a Folias that began and ended quietly, with gentle splashes of sleigh bells falling on the third beat of each measure as the performers improvised masterfully. Another peak experience was the Fantasia VIII by Luys de Milan in the third section. Enrique Solinis on guitar was impeccable and the piece had a startlingly contemporary sound.

The opening piece of the fourth section is worth mention, precisely because it was almost cloying and rather forgettable when performed to a static audience. This French Pavane was charming, but it seemed to require an accompaniment of courtly movement to be fully enjoyed—the dance and gesture of a well organized society of which the music was an allegory. On its own, it sounded as redundant and simplistic as most pop music today. (Perhaps pop music remains as much a societal rubric as it did in the 16th century.) In any event, to fully enjoy such pieces, some imagination was required, but they did not take away from the enjoyment of the night when there were so many other highlights.

Savall has performed in Seattle consistently in recent years thanks to the combined efforts of the Early Music Guild and the Spanish Consulate. One who has any interest in music would be wise to stay apprised of when his next visit will be, as each performance is a unique and wondrous exploration of history and sound. (I should add that it would be nice to see more young people there. I don’t mind being less than half the median age of those in attendance, but I think these performances are another undiscovered treasure to many and—with the passing of Figueras—I am reminded that it is rare and precious to be able to enjoy the genius of figures like Savall, who breathes life into the genius of centuries past.)

An approaching early music performance of note will be “Bach Cantatas for the Holiday Season” on December 1st at St James Cathedral. Mark your calendars.