How does an early music ensemble resonate with the EIF's 2014 theme of culture and conflict in the 100th anniversary of WWI? With music from the time of The Hundred Years War? Too early even for early music. This imaginatively conceived event dwelt rather on the hundred turbulent years in Europe from 1614-1714. The programme was entitled, War and peace in Baroque Europe: From the Thirty Years War to the Peace of Utrecht. Given the number and variety of belligerents this allowed a palette of Turkish (Ottoman), German, French, Spanish, Catalan, Italian (Venetian), Russian, English, Arabic and Aramaic languages and/or music.

Jordi Savall © David Ignaszewski
Jordi Savall
© David Ignaszewski

To help those audience members without programmes navigate the complexities of the programme, Swiss-born bass-baritone Stephan MacLeod (whose wonderful singing voice featured in many items) announced each historical event by year and location - but, understandably, omitted the associated musical titles.

Musicians and singers from Jordi Savall's three ensembles filled the stage: Hespèrion XXI, Le Concert des Nations and La Capella Reial de Catalunya. In front, seated on cushions, were players of instruments not normally associated with the western concert hall: Nedyalko Nedyalkov playing the kaval (an end-blown flute found, for example, in the Balkans); Yurdal Tokcan playing the oud (Arabic lute); Hakan Güngör playing the kanun (a large-scale zither - also known as qanun) and Dimitri Psonis playing the santur (Greek dulcimer). Savall explained in the excellent Festival Soundbites series, that it seemed important to include the music of those regions, given the prominence of the Ottoman Empire. Accuracy compels me to estimate the contribution of these four musicians, wonderful as it was, at around 20-25% of the 150-minute event (including interval). Exactly who was behind the arrangements which involved all instruments was not clear but praise is due here for some excellent modal writing! At various times I noted Dorian, Aeolian, Phrygian and, most oriental of all, one beginning on the fifth note of the harmonic minor scale. One of the most striking mixtures of East and West was included to mark the driving out from Crete of the Venetians by the Ottomans: Der makām-ı Hüseynī Sakīl-i Ağa Rıżā (Mss. D. Cantemir 89). Following some lovely oud improvisation by Yurdal Tokcan, many of the western instruments joined in, along with the kaval, santur and kanun. The ensemble was underpinned by a thunderous tonic drone provided by two very long natural brass instruments - somewhere between Alpine and Tibetan horn.

The opening item, commemorating the 1614 massacre of the Jews in Frankfurt was Ha lahma 'anya, (The Bread of Affliction) an Aramaic Passover lament for four male voices. The singers did not face the audience but rather assumed an inward-looking diamond formation to suggest, I imagine, the private, prayer-like nature of the text. It was the first time I'd seen written Aramaic in a concert programme. This work was mirrored in the second half by a very moving Catalan lament arranged by Savall and entitled, Catalunya en altres temps (Catalonia in days gone by) which, following the 1714 Siege of Barcelona, bemoans "laws against out nation...written in a foreign tongue." The other non-Roman alphabet to appear in the programme was in Vasily Titov's lovely Bezñeevéstnaya Dévo, marking the 1711 Russo-Ottoman War.

It was interesting to hear the march of music across the century. The bass drum which had appeared in the anonymous Pavane pour la petite guerre and Galliarde commemorating Cardinal Richlieu's 1636 declaration of war on Spain, was later replaced by (pitched) timpani in Charpentier's Te Deum(c.1690) included for its proximity to the 1678 Treaty of Nimegue.

On the vocal front there were many excellent solo moments - too numerous to mention - and some very fine ensemble work. The adventurous harmonies of Francesco Cavalli's Requiem Eternam from his 1675 Missa pro defuctis were particularly striking. Possibly as a result of the amount of people and instruments on present, the ten singers present spanned nearly the entire width of the stage. Whatever the reason, this elicited wonderful separation of contrapuntal lines and dynamic antiphonal effects, particularly in Lully's Jubilate Deo from his Motet for the Peace LWV77/16.

Whereas the effect of many encores is to lessen drama and tension, preparing the audience for home, Savall's choice achieved quite the reverse effect. It was a heartfelt performance of Arvo Pärt's Da Pacem Domine which Savall commissioned to commemorate the victims of the 2004 Madrid bombings. His dedication of this performance to the many currently suffering violence and upheaval resonated with his articulate programme note entitled, "Creating a culture for peace." There was compete hush while the Pärt was played and then very warm applause. Savall looked both touched and humbled.