My mostly baroque weekend continued with the final show of Seattles Early Music Guild’s 2006-2007 season. Jordi Savall has been the got o guy in my collection of early viol music. His attention to early performance style, research into the pieces, performance practice and the times is impeccable. His embrace of oral tradition and investigation the remnants of the sephardic tradition has led to some amazing music and also informed his performance of the art music of the medieval to baroque period that he focuses on. I also had the pleasure of seeing him with Hesperion XXI last year and that show was superb. So it was with great anticipation that I headed into Seattle last Sunday night.
I made it in early enough to catch the pre-show “lecture” which was pretty much a Q&A between Savall and an Early Music Guild representative. There was some interesting information from Savall as he traced his development from choir boy to early music expert and how during his youth playing “old music” was considered eccentric. I think that the most interesting comment he had to make was on the value of the oral tradition. Fans of western art music so often deride “folk” music and fail to understand that the oral tradition allows for very complicated music that can be preserved for a long time with great fidelity. That so much of the folk musics of the day were folded into the compositions of the composers, or used as the melody for long sets of variations shows that there was no clean divide. “I am only interested in making beautiful music.” They ended talking about the popularity of his soundtrack for the film Tous les Matins du Monde (All the Mornings of the World) about Sainte Colombe. Jordi mainly answered the question about soundtrack work by informing us that nearly the entire film was fabricated as only a couple of facts are known about Sainte Colombe.
After a bit of a break the first half of the program began. The theme of the evening was Folias and Romanescas which were forms of music developed in the middle ages that persisted long into the baroque era. Simple bass-line patterns they were used over and over to provide the structure for songs and dances. The evenings music would predominantly be pre-baroque and baroque running from the mid 16th century to the middle of the 18th century. The format of the evening was in blocks of multiple short pieces. I won’t go to much into individual detail of each block just some impressions. While I am quite familiar with music of this period I make no claims of expertise and especially as much of this music was major viol developments I think expertise would be needed for any sort of serious analysis. Also on block of music was changed from the progam details of which one it was and which pieces were substituted I did not record. Accompanying Jordi Savall who played Viola de Gamba the whole evening was Pierre Hantaï on harpsichord and Xavier Diaz-Latorre on baroque guitar and Theorbo. Both of these musicians are accomplished in their own areas and have long performed in various configurations with Savall. During the evening each of the musicians would play solo and they all demonstrated exemplary skill and musicianship.
The first set of music was from Diego Ortiz’s Recercadas sobre tenores. The block of music contained both Folias and Romanescas and was a lively opener for the evening. There was degrees of tone an tempo throughout the half dozen or so short pieces but it was music you could definitely believe was dance music. From this spritely opener Pierre and Xavier left the stage and Jordi played a set of solo Gamba Musical Humors composed by Tobias Hume. He gave us a little bit of information about Hume (who was apparently mad) and these pieces before playing. These were some of the first pieces of solo Viol music (which was often subservient to plucked strings up to this point) and they required a degree of virtuosity. In their day these pieces must have been pretty radical as they called for what at the time was probably crazy extended techniques. The initial piece required the bow to be bounced on the strings at first which developed into a bouncing attack that would lead into conventional bowing. The next piece used pizzicato, perhaps as a response to the more popular lute music of the day. The third piece used the back of the bow bouncing on the strings to generate a martial cadence. After going through the four listed pieces in the program Jordi kept playing announcing the title of each short piece he would play. These just seemed to increase in wildness and technique. This was followed by Xavier playing solo baroque guitar. He played two pieces the first more sedate but fairly up tempo. He had such a fluid technique of combined finger picking and strumming that was a joy to watch. The second piece was more of a barnstormer with flamenco style ornamentation and a final foot stomping flourish that brought a strong reaction from the audience. The final block was from La Viole de Louis XIV by Marin Marais which was made up of a prelude and then the longer Le Labyrinthe. The prelude was dreamy, tentative and mysterious. Then we entered the Labyrinthe and music followed the emotional arc of a wanderer in the maze. In fact, as the program notes went into in some detail, the key, tempo and meter of the various sections of the piece were all designed to evoke the emotional state of a journeyer in the labryinthe. Little triumphs, confusion, panic, false hope, an final success all were pretty clearly evoked by the music. A nice piece and its successful conclusion was a nice way to end a set.
I spent the set break reading the extensive program notes and enjoying the sounds of tuning and mingled voices. After not too long of a break the second set began. This set was in three blocks and began with solo Viola de Gamba by Sainte Colombe and a Johann Sebastian Bach. The first piece in this block began with this sawing almost grinding bowing on the Gamba. This was pretty interesting sound and it was cool to hear the range of the instrument. The second piece was more laid back and traditional and the final Bach piece was recognizably Bach with its layers of intricacies and playful nature. After this Pierre came out and fully opened the lid of his harpsichord which up to this time had been only open about eight inches. A rollicking solo set of Spanish Harpsichord music (by Scarlatti) followed. Two pieces, the first a real firecracking with waves of notes at a breakneck pace the second more intricate, fugue like. These pieces were very rhythmic and had strong harmonic features and really seemed to be a performers piece. The final block brought the whole ensemble back on stage though the first piece was a Viol, harpsichord duet. Very nice interplay between the two instruments in this piece with the harpshicords tinkly notes alternatively floating above and supporting the strong melodies of the gamba. The second piece brought Xavier back into the group with the baroque guitar. He often doubled the harpsichord line or would added ornamentation and flourishes. Probably playing a continuo part in support of the melodic line handled by Jordi. For the final piece Xavier switched between theorobo and the guitar several times throughout. This was a piece I had heard before, but this performance seemed to have a lot more variations or improvisations on the theme. A really strong melody and a driving rhythm this was a great piece to conclude the show and it brought the audience to its feet. After some applause the group returned for a lively encore which was a take on a melody from Brittany with variations and improvisations. More sedate than you’d expect for an encore which are often barnstormers I enjoyed it for its simple elegance and the impressive improvisations the group did. A nice way to end a great evening of music and one of the best seasons of the Early Music Guild.