Jordi Savall

Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music

St John's Smith Square, 16 May 2007 5 stars

Jordi Savall

Many famous performers are marketed as great artists, but in truth, the latter are in the minority.

So it was both a privilege as well as utmost joy to be present at Jordi Savall's viola da gamba concert. Savall has an extraordinary technical command of his instrument and he is a profound musician with humility. And as if this were not enough, Savall has the courage to take risks, as well as a good sense of humour.

In the opening composition, Ricercadas sobre tenores by Diego Ortiz, Savall was ably supported (as in several other pieces during the concert) by harpsichordist Pierre Hantai and theorbo/guitar player Xavier Diaz-Latorre. The three artists were dressed in modest all-black attire as if to say that they were here to serve music rather than participate in show business. And music in all its glory was, indeed, the thread running all the way through the concert. My ears might have played tricks on me, but in one of the Ortiz movements I heard a bit of 'Greensleeves' - perhaps an example of cultural exchange between Spain/Italy and England in the sixteenth century?

The performance of Tobias Hume's Musical Humours for solo viola da gamba was mind-blowing. The individual movements depict scenes from a soldier's life. Savall displayed a level of virtuosity which, until now, I would have thought impossible on the viola da gamba. His spiccato bowing with a wide dynamic range was difficult to believe even while watching it. In the second movement ('Harke, harke'), Savall produced clearly distinguished polyphony for the song-like melody and its chordal accompaniment. 'Whoope doe me no harme' was played pizzicato all the way through, yet it was audible and well varied. In the last movement, 'Souldiers Resolution', Savall announced various scenes (such as March, Cattledrum call) while he was playing (or perhaps these sections were additional movements not marked in the programme) but he had no need to do so: his solo gamba sounded like a whole army with fanfares and the like.

In two pieces by Gaspar Sanz (Jácaras and Canarios), Xavier Diaz-Latorre amazed with his guitar playing. Perhaps in the footsteps of Savall, Diaz-Latorre was also not afraid of creating descriptive sounds yet with clear polyphony, distinguishable melody and as if with a full orchestral accompaniment.

In Marin Marais' Prélude Diaz-Latorre accompanied on his theorbo as if on a much larger instrument (indeed, my Hungarian ears were almost fooled into thinking that I was listening to a cimbalom), but in La Labyrinthe he exchanged it for his guitar with a smaller but crisper sound. Savall utilised all seven of his gamba strings almost all the time, regardless of whether he was playing loudly or producing magical echoes. His slight and discreet vibrato added beauty to the notes on which he selected to use it.

Bach's Bourrée was a fascinating surprise. Savall performed it as a solo viola da gamba piece and played it pizzicato all way through, yet with a great many embellishments. I am not certain if this piece took many forms in Bach's time but it certainly appears in his Fourth (E flat major) solo Cello Suite (though, of course, bowed). As Bach arranged both a lute version and a cello version for what we know as his Fifth (C minor) solo Cello Suite, Savall was fully justified in performing a cello piece on the viola da gamba in a lute-like manner. And what a wonderful performance it was!

The final composition, Diferencias sobre las Folias by Antonio Martin y Coll, must have been the most varied presentation of the Folia tune that I have ever heard. Performed by all three artists (on four instruments, as the guitar and the theorbo were each used in different sections), the variations were truly varied. The audience did not want the performance to end, so we demanded - and were granted - two encores. The second of these was a beautiful slow French melody concluding with a disappearing diminuendo in a pizzicato passage; we got the message and allowed the concert to conclude.

As the programme presented at this concert was different from that which was originally planned, about half of Lucy Robinson's programme notes became redundant. So it is a shame that she did not mention and elaborate on the beautiful instruments we heard.

Savall's viola da gamba, made by Barak Norman (1651 - 1724), is of interest and so are Diaz-Latorre's baroque guitar and theorbo. After the concert many of us gathered around Savall and Diaz-Latorre, who very kindly answered questions about their instruments.

The Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music is to be highly commended for facilitating such a remarkable concert. I don't know whether it was recorded or not; it certainly deserved to be.

By Agnes Kory