IN: Reviews

Savall, Rock Star of the Viol


Jordi Savall, Shane Shanahan, and Paul O'Dette (Andre-Costantini photo)

Jordi Savall, the Rock Star of the Viol, thrilled a packed audience of Early Music people at Jordan Hall at five on Thursday, June 16. Cash and credit cards flew as his throngs of fans aggressively elbowed each other to get at his recordings at intermission. This was a CD buying frenzy the likes of which this mild-mannered reporter has never witnessed. Yet, even I bought two at $25 a pop.

For this concert, he chose to play with Paul O’Dette on cittern and lute and Shane Shanahan on bodhrán (an Irish drum). Much of this music had been recorded by Savall and the Baroque harpist Andrew Lawrence-King, and it took these ears a bit of volume adjustment getting used to the quieter lute sound, lovely though it was.

Savall’s mystical and personal program notes were taken largely from his liner notes in these CDs (“The Celtic Viol: In praise of transmission”). Unlike some Oriental cultures which have evolved chiefly within an oral tradition, he writes, in the West only those types of music commonly known as traditional, popular, or folk music have been preserved, thanks to unwritten means of transmission. … All music passed on and preserved by the oral tradition is the result of a felicitous survival following a long process of selection and synthesis.”

His exploration of forgotten musical voices began in 1965, when he fell under the spell of the viola da gamba. Ten years later he chose to explore the music of the Spanish Jews (before their expulsion in 1492). “The terrible amnesia caused by our loss of knowledge of ancient music practice,” he wrote, keeps us from appreciating the worth and depth of this so-called “popular” or “folk” music of many cultures — including that of the Celtic Lands — represented most famously by Turlough O’Carolan (the blind, early Irish harpist (1670-1738) known for his many beautiful melodies), where only the melody survives. Savall began to get interested in Celtic music in 1977 (this is not a musician who does things in half-measures), and when the extraordinary manuscripts were discovered (including the Manchester Gamba book which offered more than 30 tunings or scordatura (ital) tuning for the viola, along with bagpipe tunings for the viola), he realized he had his work cut out for him. From then on, he kept on researching Celtic music (Irish and Scottish), astonished to find so much documented historical material- more than ten thousand pieces.

The five o’clock concert began with the house lights turned out and only four stage lights on over the performers. Each of the concert’s five sets contained four or five pieces, usually alternating between fast and slow tempi. Sometimes one performer would start, then another one or two join in, sounding like a Celtic jam session (although each musician used music). The music would go seamlessly from one piece to another, keeping the audience in the trancelike pleasure begun at the start of each set. Savall alternated between a six-string treble viol, which sounded like and was the size of a violin, and the seven-string bass or lyra viol which was tuned to the bagpipe scordatura. He admits that although his approach of a musician who has had to spend years learning this music rather than being born into the tradition as a “true fervent tribute to the art of transmission” to those who, for generations, have passed it on and kept it alive.

The concert’s repertoire offered everything from jigs, airs, reels and rants, to laments. Savall’s fans were happy no matter what he played, in part because everything was played with such charisma, beauty, and when needed, gusto. It didn’t hurt that his two-piece back-up band was just terrific. The lute was occasionally strummed, but that role went mostly to the cittern. The most moving set, to these ears, was The Lamento Set, which included a heart-rending “Lament for the Death of his Second Wife” by Neil Gow (1727-1807) and the tragic solo viol piece, “Macpherson’s Lament.” According to legend Savall told quietly from the stage, before Macpherson’s execution, he played this piece. He then offered his instrument to anyone who would take it, but his audience was understandably spooked. So, he broke it in two, and died. Songs don’t get sadder than this one, or more beautifully played. The (comparatively) famous “Carolan’s Farewell” in the last set for treble viola nd lute was a gem of beautiful musicianship. A brilliant concert by a brilliant artist.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.


2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Does Ms. Miron know something others don’t about Andrew Lawrence King’s departure from this world? Or, as Mark Twain once said, are the reports greatly exaggerated? I certainly hope so.

    One other comment: we know nothing, alas, about the music of the Spanish Jews pre-1492. The musical traditions of modern Sephardic Jewry, besides being beautiful in and of themselves, may well give us facinating clues and suggestions regarding a distant past, but we see (and hear) as through a glass darkly.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — June 20, 2011 at 6:04 pm

  2. Hello Joel,
    I was fortuitously wrong about the premature death. He is apparently alive and well.
    What I believe I (and Mr. Savall) was referring to were the melodies of the pre-1492 Spanish Jews, not the traditions. I hope this clarifies this matter.
    A fellow harpist must have told me about the premature death a while back, and before I ever write that someone is dead, I’ll check when in any doubt.

    Comment by susan miron — June 23, 2011 at 3:31 pm

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