Arts & Events

Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI at Zellerbach

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday February 03, 2017 - 10:08:00 AM

For more than four decades Jordi Savall and the ensemble Hespèrion XX, now Hespèrion XXI, have explored a rich trove of music composed between the Middle Ages and the Baroque. They have unearthed musical scores long forgotten by composers also long forgotten. In doing so, they have enriched our understanding of the development of European music from the Gothic period to the Baroque. The concert given on Friday, January 27, at Zellerbach Hall by Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI provided yet another instance of this ensemble’s unwavering commitment to filling in the gaps, as it were, in our understanding of European music. For this concert, they focused on Venetian influences in musical Europe between 1500 and 1700.  

Rarely, if ever, have I attended a concert offering a program of works none of which I had ever heard before. Yet that may well be the case with the program offered by Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI last Friday at Zellerbach. The only exception may be the Lacrimae Pavan by English composer John Dowland. It was such a popular piece of music in the Elizabethan period, and has remained so popular today, that I surely must have heard it, at least on the radio. But searching my CD collection, I find other works by John Dowland, but not this most famous of his works.  

Given the unfamiliarity of the works performed at this concert, it may come as a surprise to readers – as it did I suppose to many audience members – that the works we heard largely failed to distinguish themselves from one another. Whether coming from an anonymous Venetian composer, an Elizabethan or Jacobean composer from England, an anonymous composer at the French court of Louis XIII, or a German composer, few of these pieces stood out from any others that were performed. Les Pleurs d’Orphée by Luigi Rossi certainly was a poignant lament; but it pales in comparison with the great lament Tu se’ morta by Claudio Monteverdi in his 1607 opera Orfeo, which was not included in this program nor was any other work by Monteverdi, despite his unquestioned status as the most influential Venetian-based composer between 1500 and 1700.  

No, the focus was unrelentingly on long forgotten works by long forgotten composers. However, one might be tempted to say, after hearing these long forgotten works, that they may well deserve to remain forgotten. Or, to put it another way, do works such as these deserve to be performed in vast concert halls such as Zellerbach, or would they benefit far more from being played in more intimate venues? I can easily imagine this program of works being delightfully performed in the courtyard of a Renaissance château or palazzo, complete with dancers in period costumes. Such a concert would not only be more enjoyable, it would also be more authentic in terms of the period these works represent, for that is how such pieces would have been presented in their day. 

Nonetheless, a few works managed to stand out. One was the Ricercare XIV « Da Pacem » by Venetian composer Hieronymus Parabosco, written in 1540 to celebrate the end of Venice’s war with Ottoman Turkey. Another work that stood out was the Bourrée d’Avignonez by an anonymous composer at the French court of Louis XIII. This piece was admirably played in lively fashion featuring guitarist Xavier Diaz-Latorre and percussionist David Mayoral. Finally, after a long stretch of exquisitely played but boringly similar works by composers such as Giuseppe Guarni, Samuel Scheidt, Biagio Marini, and Giovanni Legrenzi, the concert came to life in the final set devoted to Iberian folias and dances. Here a Folia by Pedro de San Lorenzo was lively, as were his improvisations on themes from the Canary Islands, which showed off the improvisational virtuosity of viola da gambist Jordi Savall. Likewise with the improvisations on a Gallarda (Gaillarde) by Antonio Valente. They were a long time in coming; but the audience responded warmly to these Spanish pieces with their lively use of pizzicato and guitar solos accompanied by percussion or solo improvisations by Jordi Savall on viola da gamba. Almost alone, these Spanish pieces managed to rescue what otherwise seemed an academic exercise in historical resuscitation, exquisitely played but hardly making you want to hear these pieces again.