For its 10th year, the Cartagena International Music Festival opted for a reflective theme. Hacia Tierra Firme, directly translated means “landward”, here represents the musical journey of Colombia, looking back to Spain and West Africa and exploring the history and influence they still have on Colombia cultural life today.

Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI © Wilfredo Amaya
Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI
© Wilfredo Amaya

The opening concert of the festival had this theme very much in its heart, with director Jordi Savall bringing us a live recreation of his 2007 recording with Hesperion XXI and La Cappella Reial de Catalunya. A mixture of readings and music gave us insight into Spain during the 15th and 16th centuries, not just in relation to Colombus' voyages, but also the upheavals of the expulsions of the Jews and Muslims; the loss of a paradise where all cultures lived together freely. It was a mouth-watering prospect.

Unfortunately, the scintillating programme was almost impossible to follow when seated at the back of a box directly to the right of the stage. An obstructed view would not normally be something to draw attention to, however in this case its impact was undeniable. I tried various things to improve my prospects, standing in the box, then moving further towards the centre of the concert hall and eventually being re-seated in a more centrally positioned box. This was something the more relaxed nature of Colombian concert halls made an easy experience, although I also enjoyed feeling slightly like a naughty child scuttling around the back of the theatre – it felt authentic to the era being portrayed. As I was reseated, I realised that all the readings were being accompanied by a English translation projected onto the back of the stage, something very welcomed for this non-Spanish speaker. I could still only see half the translation, but it was a vast improvement.

There was nothing to be faulted with the music. The opening procession, a mixture of two settings of Medea texts by Gilles Binchois, set a mystical tone that John Tavener would have envied. Driss el Maloumi, both in singing and on the oud, created a perfect Andalusian-Arabic world, most beautifully in the Mowachah Billadi askara min aadbi Llama. La Capella Reial de Catalunya were sublime, particularly in the music surrounding the conquest of Granada and the final pieces, with the plaintive Quechan Hanacpachap cussicuinin contrasting beautifully with the lively Chaconne A la vida bona. The anonymous Sefardi lament that accompanied the readings concerning the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 was especially beautiful, with the four male singers leaving the stage and forming a small circle at the front of the stalls, lit with a single spotlight. The music again had echoes of a Tavener-esque Eastern Orthodox mysticism; this similarity only served to highlight the how much more peoples have in common, and the utter futility of the expulsions. A hugely powerful moment. Confidence brimmed throughout, with every musical language navigated seamlessly, as you would expect from a well-rehearsed programme.

Surprisingly, this confident showmanship was not shared by the narrator, Manuel Forcano, who has also previously been a part of this programme. Even when I could not understand the readings, I longed for him to look up from his notes, to declaim more. He was more university professor than storyteller bringing history to life, something compounded by his appearing to have come straight from the lecture theatre, scarf draped casually around his neck. This scholarly demeanour did also leak through to the performers in part; while polished, I sometimes wished I felt they were having more fun, being very serious right up until the final chaconne, where there was a more relaxed feel.

The idea of this musical retelling of history is a fascinating one, and clearly one to which Savall has given great consideration. I will certainly be adding the recording to my collection soon, and would seek out this concert – although next time I will make sure to choose my seat carefully!