Jordi Savall is showing no sign of slowing down. In 2023, the Catalan conductor, viola da gamba virtuoso and all-round Renaissance man will be passing through Sydney, Hamburg, Estonia, Turkey, Luxembourg and Portugal. But he’s not that interested in talking about his career.

Jordi Savall
© David Ignaszewski

In conversation, Savall is charming, erudite, loquacious. He quotes Erasmus and José Saramago, worries about the nefarious influence of smartphones on early education, spends some time on the theological debate surrounding the question of Jesus’s humanity. And he really gets into his stride when he’s waxing lyrical about the work of François Couperin.

Les Nations is a work close to Jordi Savall’s heart: in 1989, he named one of his first ensembles after it. Le Concert des Nations, an orchestra of musicians from across the world playing period instruments, is still alive and well, and Savall’s vision of the music, and its composer, is unchanged since his initial discovery of the work. Savall will lead the orchestra in a performance of Les Nations at LAC Lugano in April.

“Couperin’s work is extraordinary. He’s one of the great Baroque musicians, despite being less well known than others like Lully or Handel – perhaps this was because he didn’t write operas, he didn’t write big orchestral suites, nothing spectacular.” Couperin, in Savall’s eyes, is more subtle.

Jordi Savall rehearsing with viola da gamba
© Amy Ryan

And he should know. Jordi Savall has been playing Couperin since the very start of his career, and his relationship to the pieces close to his heart is a stable, committed one. Getting to know a piece of music is, in his eyes, a long-term project. He is uninterested in dramatic reinterpretations or changes of heart. “When I take on a project like this one, I approach it with such a long preparatory period, with such depths of work, that my approach doesn’t evolve very much over the years.”

He describes the surprise of rerecording pieces for a second time – ten or twenty years after an initial production – and finding, upon listening back to them, that the new version is an echo of the first, the timings almost identical. “I have a very precise memory for rhythm. When I tackle a piece, I must find the corresponding rhythm. When I find it, I never forget it.”

Rhythm is an essential quality of Les Nations, which is made up of a series of sonatas (or “sonades”) and suites. “Many of these pieces are dances – you have to find the right rhythm for them. If you play a piece too slowly, it loses all its energy. If you play it too fast, it becomes muddled, because all of that detail – the breath, the ornamentation – is lost. If the tempo is right, the music becomes fluid, comes alive.”

The fourth suite “La Piémontoise” from Couperin’s Les Nations performed by Jordi Savall and Le Concert des Nations.

That sense of aliveness is crucial to Savall. He draws parallels between Couperin’s philosophy – “I prefer that which moves me to that which surprises me” – and another great artist of the time, the poet and fabulist Jean de la Fontaine. “He reflects the same sensitivity as Couperin when he says grace is more lovely than beauty. Grace is something that touches the soul. It is more human than perfection.”

His interest in Couperin’s composition, however, is more than an aesthetic one. With his keen eye for international politics as well as for seventeenth-century philosophy, Savall is drawn to the European ideals at work in Les Nations, which celebrates and plays with differences in so-called national musical styles.

“What is interesting here is the characterisation of each nation, the idea of each nation – French, Spanish, German – reflected in the music in a poetic manner.” Savall is interested in the ideas of cross-fertilisation and communication that animate the world of music in the Baroque period. “The world of music was one of constant exchange. Lully, who was Italian, invented French music. German music was more popular in London than in Vienna. Haydn’s ‘Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross’ was commissioned in Cádiz. Ça, c’est l’Europe.” That’s Europe.

Jordi Savall and Le Concert des Nations, with Capella Reial de Catalunya perform in Toulouse
© Patrice Nin

Themes of cultural exchange and communication transcending borders – and indeed, the historical struggles to achieve those ideals – have been at the heart of Savall’s values since his childhood in Catalonia. It was an upbringing steeped in a melting pot of cultures: Spanish and Catalan, Jewish and Arab, Mediterranean and European. These same themes drive the series of CD-books produced by his publishing house, Alia Vox, past volumes of which have been dedicated to the twelfth-century Muslim traveller Ibn Battuta and the Catalan philosopher Ramon Llull, alongside a history of Venice and the unambiguously titled The Routes of Slavery: 1444–1888.

Unafraid to tackle big ideas, Savall is preparing a new project on the theme of war in Europe. “Unfortunately, I think it’s of great contemporary relevance. It is easy to forget that war has always been present in Europe. I’m interested in understanding why that is the case, why it’s still the case. War, it seems, is always a question of a conflict of beliefs, of different manners of seeing the world, but it gets mixed up with the desire for power.”

To Savall, this intellectual work is indissociable from his life as a musician. Though it is, he believes, more difficult for musicians to find time for such pursuits than it was at the start of his career in the 1970s. “In those days, we had time to do research, to think, to read, to be autonomous in our approach – whereas today we’re in a different world. We don’t have the same understanding of things. I used to spend weeks in the British Museum, in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, at the Library of Catalonia...” He describes the magical sensation of holding an original manuscript in your hands: “it has an entirely different energy to looking at something online or on microfilm. Nowadays, there’s so much information available, so many articles, that you can become discouraged.” He fears a culture of superficial engagement, where performers jump too quickly from one project to the next.

Yet in other ways, he sees the evolution of the world of medieval and Renaissance music as a positive one. “Early music as we know it today didn’t exist before May ’68. That’s not a coincidence. It was a time when we thought that our generation could change the world.”

This spirit of ’68 lit up the world of music in a time of pioneering change, he says. “We were a minority: a bit crazy, idealistic, very enthusiastic, up for anything. It was a time of collaboration. Everybody knew each other, it was a beautiful atmosphere. We all helped each other out.” He describes the era as joyful if a little chaotic, and occasionally amateurish by virtue of necessity. “You would put together an ensemble, and the trumpet players, they would have four or five years’ experience. Nowadays, you have trumpet players who started playing this type of music when they were ten years old.” He smiles. “I myself only started playing early music after spending ten years studying the cello and Romantic music.”

Jordi Savall and viola da gamba
© David Ignaszewski

In Savall’s eyes, the world of early music is in good shape today, except for one problem: the struggle to find funding. “We simply have too few resources compared to major institutions like symphonic orchestras, theatres or opera houses.”

To fight against this, he sees it as an essential necessity to break down borders between cultures. “We mustn’t cut ourselves off from the musical language of Europe. Culture has been left for too long in the hands of individual states, instead of thinking of culture as a European project. If culture is only something that is spoken of within national discussions, culture loses its meaning, which is to erase borders, and to say: we are speaking the same language.” Ça, c’est l’Europe.

Jordi Savall and Le Concert des Nations will perform François Couperin’s Les Nations at LAC Lugano on 19th April. This interview was sponsored by Fondazione LuganoMusica.