The annual York Early Music Festival makes the best possible use of the Quire and Nave of York Minster, St Olave’s, St Margaret’s, St Michael le Belfry and other suitably medieval venues. This concert, however, took place in the modern setting of the Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York, and was broadcast live on Radio 3. Hespèrion XXI was founded in Basel in 1974 by the Catalan viol player Jordi Savall and his late wife the soprano Montserrat Figueras. The ensemble, which until 2000 was known as Hespèrion XX, specialises in improvising on the thinnest of melodic lines, by drawing upon various techniques which the individual instrumentalists bring to the group from their own native and folk traditions. They succeed in making satisfying works of music from the barest row of notes. Their performance at York of music from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was particularly notable for conjuring much out of little.

Jordi Savall © David Ignaszewski
Jordi Savall
© David Ignaszewski

 Jordi Savall, bearded, bespectacled and professorial in appearance, directed the ensemble while also playing the rabab and the lira – both early fiddles, held cello-wise, pointing downward. Other members played the ney (an end-blown flute), kanun (a Turkish zither), santur (a hammered dulcimer), moresca (a long-necked lute), oud (the Arabic lute) and percussion. Savall’s programme drew, as it has frequently done, from the music of Spain during the period when Christians, Muslims and Jews lived alongside each other and shared each others’ musical traditions. After the expulsion of the Moors and the Jews in 1492, the diasporas spread the music of each group back east across the Mediterranean, and along the Silk Road to the Orient.

 Hespèrion XXI’s programme opened with an Alba, a piece to greet the dawn. This was roughly bowed on the rabab ( one string playing a drone to accompany the figures performed on the others strings) against a background of drumming. The family of drums on show at this concert was fascinating in itself, with a large bass drum, two hand-drums, an hourglass drum and a tambourine. As the programme continued with traditional Armenian and Berber dances, it was clear that the Middle Eastern tradition of monody was to be followed throughout the concert. A melody line might be accompanied by a drone, or doubled at the octave, but beyond that there were no harmonies. Instead of harmonic richness, Hespèrion XXI explored the capacity of each instrument to ornament a plain melodic line with trills, shakes, runs and slithery glissandos, played on the kanun or Turkish zither by striking the plectrums across the full set of strings. The breathy sound of the ney, or end-blown flute, made the music sound as if it had gone even further east than Turkey – there was a similarity in sound to a Japanese flute of similar construction, the shakuhachi, and a similar meditative quality to the music.

Alfonso X el Sabio (Alfonso the Wise) was king of Castile from 1252-1284, and during his reign managed to father eleven children in between conducting several wars, writing innumerable hymns to the Virgin Mary, and sponsoring translations of game books from Arabic into Castilian. His musical compositions did not only include hymns, but also dances such as the Saltarello, included in this concert rattled out over a triplet drum pattern with some nifty cross-rhythms in oud, rabab and moresca, a long-necked, small-bodied lute. The Saltarello followed a piece from a book of music manuscripts written in Istanbul in the 18th century. Two other pieces from the same book featured in the concert.

The Rotundellus that opened the second part of the programme was another of Alfonso’s pieces, interpreted on gruff string drones, pattering tambourines and thudding drums, enough to get the most jaded early music listeners tapping their feet. The temptation to get up and dance in the aisles grew stronger as the evening progressed. When one member of the audience made an early bolt for the exit, I hoped for a second that she was going to favour us with at least a saltarello.

Savall’s methods can be criticised for inauthenticity. At the following day’s concert of viol music, the leader of the Rose Consort wondered out loud at the fact that all Savall’s ensemble had had to work from was a set of melodic lines. The Rose Consort’s repertory was, of course, customarily composed in full four-part counterpoint. But this seemed to be missing the real glory of Hespèrion XXI: anyone running a bar or a bistro, or providing music for a christening, a post-Ramadan party or a bar mitzvah, would have to go a long way to find more fitting and spirited music than that made by Jordi Savall and his sometimes merry, sometimes melancholy, band of minstrels.