Jordi Savall’s fame drew a robust crowd into the seasonably cold and drafty St. Paul Church in Harvard Square—enough to warm up the cavernous edifice and make it just a little less nippy for Boston Early Music Festival’s show on Saturday. The regal Catalan maestro appeared this time accompanied by Frank McGuire, his established partner in Celtic explorations. The presence of a robust Scotsman in a black kilt and matching shirt, with a silver sporran and one diamond earring glittering in the dark, added to pre-concert excitement, but it was the immensely photogenic master of the viol who was photographed as he hung around, tuning and poking his seven-string 1697 bass viol and the six-string treble one. The preconcert lecture amounted to a rather abbreviated introduction and a few questions and answers, during which McGuire, a master of several traditional instruments, had a chance to showcase his tunable percussion of the evening, the bodhrán.
Savall started on the treble viol with four short Irish pieces with McGuire joining for the two faster ones. With the pieces played without a pause, the percussion joining in created a somewhat improvisational atmosphere.
A selection of Musicall Humours for bass viol by Captain Tobias Hume followed. Aside from the viol being the 17th century’s instrument of choice, this mercenary has only one connection to the Celtic theme: some letters penned in his infirm years, captured his far-fetched plans to defeat the Irish rebels. Fittingly, his Musicall Humours provided a nice contrast with the main Celtic theme of the concert. Some of the pieces by Hume brought out the vintage Saval—spontaneous and soulful. The last selection under the title A Souldiers Resolution consisted of a series of musical depictions of campaign scenes, whose titles were announced by the performer, in a kind of Elizabethan version, or rather inversion, of the genre of music video.
Several subsequent suites derived from Celtic pieces extracted from collections spanning three centuries and were arranged by Savall according to required tuning and by matching key. The performers alternated slow pieces played by Savall solo with fast ones where McGuire added excitement and character by joining in on the bodhrán. The emerging harmonization placed high among the sonic highlights of the evening. The audience showed the most animation in the moments when the playing accelerated to a breakneck speed, the best trick of fiddlers of all times.
The sound of the treble viol carried reasonably well, but for listeners, especially those who did not have a good view of the performers, it likely did not add up to a fully satisfying musical experience. Even sitting upfront, I could not help wondering whether the softer notes reached the back at all. One also wondered how this music would react to trading one da gamba player for a couple of less historically informed da braccio examples.
Of all the founding faiths or founders’ intents of the Early Music movement—closer proximity to the intent of the composer, attempts to replicate what the piece sounded like to its first listeners, reanimation of undeservedly abandoned instruments, or just simply music making with passion that is stimulated by the depth of knowledge—this listener always found the last one to be the most rewarding. Jordi Savall’s concerts and recordings always delivered. Despite considerable moments of virtuosity and moments of beauty, I was left pondering what qualities were missing during this outing.
There has been an interesting discussion, reflected [here] in these pages provoked by Savall’s excursions into another folk music tradition—Sephardic in that case. It was centered on the question of whether early music illuminati can bring better or even matching insights into a tradition, when compared to modern performers practicing that continuously evolving folklore. A related question is which approach is likely to bring more musical joy. Celtic tradition is remarkably rich and full of vitality, and I, for one, had a strong impulse after coming home from the concert to scurry around YouTube for some Chieftains or look for Celtic Sojourn on the radio.
To this reviewer, the many vibrant modern faces of the organically evolving Celtic music look much more interesting than the well-researched presentation by this magister of the art of recorded music. What could be a better conclusion from a concert, which, by including a traditional player and by offering an homage it its very heartfelt program notes, pays tribute to the powerful surviving spirit of centuries-old oral transmission?