An aesthetic of tradition whose past appears as its present and vice versa, that resists or smudges the shifts of meaning which occur through time, informs music-making in Austria ranging from the waltzes performed by the Vienna Philharmonic on New Year’s Day to the more idiosyncratic impulses of Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Extending beyond music, what is often packaged as the cultural present is defined by a perspective of the past so foreshortened and nostalgic that it frequently teeters into the realm of kitsch.
The work of pioneering gamba player Jordi Savall and his period ensemble Hespèrion XXI presents something recognizably old that nonetheless lives and breathes in the present, and though this does not pander so openly to the heritage industry, historical surfaces are inextricably attached to contemporary regional and cultural identity in a way that Austrians recognize, accounting perhaps in some part for Savall’s popularity in Vienna (where he is an honorary member of the Konzerthaus and regular visitor for the last thirty years). The region is, loosely, Catalonia and the culture a rich melting pot, which Savall locates in 16th and 17th century Spanish music, of intricately ornamented melody and modal homophony drawn from Arab-Andalusian tradition, dancing songs, romantic and pastoral themes, colourful improvisation, and other entirely non-Hispanic influences.
In concert this makes for a string of obscure musical delights which fall in no particular aesthetic order and whose origins span two centuries. At this event a further degree of unanticipated freedom from organization came due to flights grounded by snow, which led first to an updated programme added as a booklet insert and then Savall, equipped with a dead microphone, not always audibly announcing composers and titles in an order which didn’t seem to correlate much with either printed programme. Amid the confusion, it was unclear whether he originally intended pieces which rely on the same harmonic and rhythmic formulas to be performed in succession – resulting in long stretches of more or less identical music.
In Hespèrion XXI Savall has assembled a group of musicians who show consummate mastery of their instruments and play in a sunny, lively style that is full of Iberian colour. The singers of La Capella Reial de Catalunya, another group founded by Savall, were no less impressive in the catchy vocal selections and had its members been identified in the programme I would single out some of the solo contributions by name, particularly the idiomatic flair of the singing in “Ande, pues”, a spirited number by Mateo Flecha the elder (though it was a shame we didn’t hear the Capella Reial attempt one of his more vigorous ensaladas). Savall’s famous improvisations – and it is always worth remembering that this instrument is far more difficult to play than it ever sounds in the hands of an expert – were plentiful in number. Whether the Grosser Saal, which seats just over 1800 and is conditioned by Savall’s large local following, offers anything approaching an ideal acoustic for this combination of singers and musicians is however debatable, and close listening became a frustrating experience when certain instruments and voice routinely carried with a clarity and strength that outgunned others.
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