Jordi Savall is well known to early music lovers, championing the revival of the viola da gamba with a wealth of previously unknown material and appearing regularly in the UK both as player and leader of his three ensembles. If, however, you have never before put the words dynamic, fluent, exciting, rhythmic, virtuoso and theorbo into the same sentence, then the name of Rolf Lislevand may be less familiar. This charismatic Norwegian lutenist seldom appears in the UK and performs only a handful of solo recitals each year, preferring to play alongside small groups of musicians or directing his ephemeral Kapsberger Ensemble. He ranges temporally from Dowland to Bach and spatially from Italy to Latin America (and on a wide range of instruments including lute, theorbo, Baroque guitar, vihuela and mandolin), but his particular interest is 17th-century Spanish and Italian music. He and Jordi Savall are long-standing musical sparring partners and together they were a highlight of this 51st Stresa Festival on the shores of Lake Maggiore, in a programme of “Folias and Romanescas”. It was a wonderfully full and exciting programme and there is space here only to mention some of the highlights.

A 17th-century definition of a Folia is “a rowdy Portuguese dance... music so loud that everyone seems to have gone mad”, with the concurrent songs represented by Romanescas and their variants, the Passamezzos. We started with both, in what has been described as one of the highpoints in the Golden Age of Spanish Music: the Trattado de Glosas, published in Rome in 1553, by the Spanish composer and viol player Diego Ortiz. Although most were written for solo viol and harpsichord, the theorbo was an eloquent stand-in, well suited to the required ornamentation and polyphony. The selection of individual works and the order they were played in demonstrated the full variety of the form, capped by the final Passamezzo (for which Rolf Lislevand swapped to Baroque guitar) so full of life and musical frenzy, a stamp of the foot standing in for percussion and about as far removed from the cool, courtly lute as can be imagined.

Rolf Lislevand has spent his career forging a new way of playing early music, on authentic instruments and based on deep research but with the conviction that improvisation was an integral part of contemporary performance – not forming part of the musical score, but known from documentary evidence – and should remain so today. Furthermore, with his astonishing technical virtuosity he is in a position to lead from the front, and as a result he is one of those musicians who make you hear and think in an entirely different way. One of his specialities is the seamless movement from one piece into another, sometimes with some subtle improvising, other times by judicious interweaving of variations on a similar theme. The Corbetta pieces were classic demonstrations, fresh and spontaneous, from the exquisitely delicate improvisatory introduction to the Prélude, leading into the basic Caprice de chaconne, followed by variations. It was like the very best sort of jazz, leading listeners into the unknown, to places we didn't know even existed, never mind where they were on the map, and safely back again. Finally, the Folies d’Espagne, which were energetic, fast and absorbing but ended with a quiet fade away.

Tobias Hume was a professional soldier in the service of Elizabeth I (and also a mercenary for the Swedish crown). Jordi Savall discovered his published volumes of Humors in the Reading Room of the British Museum; they were some of the earliest works (1605) to bring forward the viol over the lute, which had hitherto been the dominant instrument. The military theme was clear with the percussion effect of striking the strings with the wooden part of the bow, apparently the earliest use of this technique in the western canon. Very different were the Marais Pièces de viole, well known now thanks to the film Touts les matins du monde, culminating with Jordi Savall's hands flying over the strings in the movement “La sautillante”.

The next items on the original programme were Bach and de Visée, but when Rolf Lislevand appeared on stage with his Baroque guitar, it was clear that both were off the agenda. He introduced the revised set but my Italian being non-existent I hope I have identified them correctly. The opening piece was the lively Paradetas by Antonio de Santa Cruz, then there was a change of mood with Gaspar Sanz’s atmospheric Giga ingles, before we finally moved into the Sanz Canarios (1674), which Lislevand has made his own – alternately light and dancing then staggeringly fast and furious, each note beautifully and perfectly articulated, a combination of plucking and strumming techniques, with the rhythmic precision, strength and imagination for which he is justly renown.

Marais, of course, to finish the main programme, and the delightful Folies d’Espagne, where the interplay of the two musicians, obviously easy and confident in their music-making together, made these two difficult instruments sing to us. Jordi Savall is known for his generous encores and we were treated to three, the most surprising being the role-reversal of the third; many of the earlier duets were for viola da gamba supported by theorbo/guitar, but now we had the Kapsberger/Piccinini Ciaccona, usually played by solo theorbo but here by the plucked strings of the da gamba, with theorbo variations! It was a fun way to finish a thrilling and uplifting concert.

Jordi Savall in Fnac, Paris; photo by Georges Seguin
Jordi Savall in Fnac, Paris; photo by Georges Seguin
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