The world-renowned viol player Jordi Savall is known for pushing the boundaries; he seems keen not to typecast the viol as a period instrument, but rather to step outside the world of Baroque music and historical performance practice and show the viol’s worth in other genres. Last year he was awarded the Léonie Sonning Music Prize – also known as the Danish “Nobel Prize” for music – a prestigious award (the list of recipients reads like a who’s-who of the music world) given annually to an internationally outstanding composer or performer. Among the reasons the judges cited for awarding Savall the prize were his “study, interpretation, direction, and approach to diverse musical traditions, in an intercultural dialogue with a great meaning, which has passed all borders”. Never one to rest on his laurels, his efforts in this regard were plain to see in this concert of Celtic music at Wigmore Hall.

Jordi Savall © David Ignaszewski
Jordi Savall
© David Ignaszewski

Whilst the viol has seen its popularity rise and rise over the decades with the trend for historically-informed performance of early music, it is not really an instrument one would associate with Celtic traditional music. It is a softly-spoken instrument, in contrast to the raw sound of the fiddle, and this in fact is its draw: it was used to present this music to the genteel folk of centuries gone by. In combining the treble and lyra viols with three traditional instruments – the Irish harp, the psaltery, and the bhodrán – Savall demonstrated that although the viol does have a more delicate sound, it is an extremely versatile instrument.

The concert was presented in a number of “sets”, the traditional Irish way of putting together a few musical tunes which flow from one to the next in terms of theme, structure and key signature. Fittingly, the concert began with some traditional Irish music in a set entitled “The Caledonia Set”. This particular set combined the slow, mournful lilt of the lament Caledonia’s Wail for Niel Gow with the more dance-like Scotch Mary and the lively Irish jig Sackow’s.

Whilst, as one might expect, much of the music was of a lively nature, not all of it fell into this category. The moods and themes were in fact quite wide-ranging, from the laments by Macpherson and Gow in the appropriately named “Lamento set” and some slower reels and jigs, such as Crabs in the skillet, to the dark and brooding lyra viol sound of Abergeldie Castle Strathspey, the raw sound of Lancashire Pipes (so much for the aforementioned soft sound!) and the foot-tappingly energetic closing item, Gusty’s Frolics.

Although most of music was of Scottish or Irish origin, the concert was remarkable for the breadth of sources from which the music was drawn. There were plenty of items which had, in the traditional way, been passed down from generation to generation of musical families, but there were also some very interesting printed sources represented: the Manchester Gamba Book, which dates from the 1660s and is the largest extant volume of solo viol music, several items composed by Turlough O’Carolan, the blind 17th- to 18th-century Irish harpist, and Ryan’s Mammoth Collection, a 19th-century American volume of over 1,000 traditional tunes.

This concert appealed on many levels. An intelligent programme, with anecdotes interspersed between sets, ensured that almost 90 minutes of Celtic music did not bore; there was some astonishing playing and accompaniment from Andrew Lawrence-King (Irish harp and psaltery) and Frank McGuire (bhodrán), whose contribution should not be overlooked; and, of course, the audience was treated to Jordi Savall’s customary musicality and enthusiasm.

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