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Savall Holds Sanders in Thrall


Jordi Savall (file photo)

All the mornings of the world may fade away, but Jordi Savall endures. The septuagenarian viola da gamba master once more enthralled, as a fully packed Sanders Theater last Sunday, February 24th witnessed him revisit the French Baroque repertoire he so popularized in the 1991 Alain Corneau film Tous les matins du monde.

Boston Early Music Festival paired up with Harvard Film Archive to screen a luminous 35mm print of the film on the eve of the concert, also to a sold-out crowd. The César Award-winning melodrama presents a fictionalized account of how Marin Marais, the reigning viol of Louis XIV’s court, once pursued his studies with the austere Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe, who, haunted by the death of his wife, retreats from the world. The mourning master wants nothing to do with the cocky youth, but Marais wins the favor of Sainte-Colombe’s talented daughter, who teaches and advocates for him, then suffers the o-so-lamentably predictable fate of the Doomed Girlfriend of the Artist as a Reckless, Ambitious Young Man. But if the plot creaks as a tired trope, the acting seems at times overwrought (or unwrought in the lack of any attempt at approximating viable musicianship), and the dialogue often induces cringes (the Saturday evening audience guffawed at several choice morsels), the chiaroscuro cinematography glowed movingly of Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and La Tour, and the soundtrack, as Michael Cooper recently explicated [HERE] in the New York Times, seduced an entire generation.            

In the 1970s and ’80s, Savall had already mapped his realm in landmark recordings of now-standard repertoire with such early-music eminences as Gustav Leonhardt, Trevor Pinnock, Ton Koopman, and Hopkinson Smith, even while his Hespèrion XX (later XXI) ensemble plied the seas of the obscure, rendering especially valuable service to the neglected Spanish Baroque. Since the film catapulted Savall and the viola da gamba to international celebrity (Ba-rock-stardom, if you will), he and his various collaborators have charted ever-expanding horizons, year after year—the soundscape in which Don Quixote tilted at his windmills, say, or the aural itineraries of Ibn Battuta or the Trans-Atlantic slave trade; a musical excavation of the palimpsestuous Holy Land, or a millennium of cross-cultural currents that coursed through Venice. For those who have followed these voyages with Savall and crew, and marveled at the exotica they unearthed, coming home to Sainte-Colombe and Marais in a live concert might seem strangely disorienting, like alighting with sea-legs a-wobble on a once-familiar shore.

Nonetheless, come Sunday night we did. A hearteningly age-diverse crowd thronged to Savall’s revival of a nearly-three-decades-old program of more-than-three-centuries-old music: Sainte-Colombe’s mournfully meditative Tombeau Les Regrets and the sweeping autumnal dance of Marais’s Sonnerie de Ste. Geneviève du Mont de Paris at its heart, nestled in selections from books two and three of Marais’s Pièces de viole, as well as contributions from Lully, Rameau, François Couperin, and Jean-Marie Leclair.

The 30-year-old Le Concert des Nations, the youngest of Savall’s ensembles, this time comprised Manfredo Kraemer, violin; Charles Zebley, flute; Daniel Swenberg, theorbo; Luca Guglielmi, harpsichord; and Philippe Pierlot joining Savall on seven-string bass viol (a Sainte-Colombe invention). Other than Savall himself, none had performed on the original soundtrack, so the concert presented less the early music equivalent of a Rolling Stones reunion, more a ‘Paul Simon revisits the greatest hits with a new backup band,’ albeit one whose members have worked closely and prolifically in various configurations over the decades. A soulful sincerity—the kind that speaks softly with slanted gaze rather than wide-eyed zeal, even when performing with vertiginous virtuosity—suffused the evening.

Gaggles gathered to gape at the resting instruments during intermission. A palpable buzz pervaded the hall, with many overheard conversations explaining or wondering aloud about a featured composer or piece, or what distinguishes viola da gamba from violoncello, or how one even pronounces “theorbo.” How many were discovering this trove for the first time? How many were being dazzled once again by the fresh polishing of cherished gems? Old fans and converts alike—may the ranks continue to swell—can already look forward to Savall & Co.’s return to Sanders next February in BEMF’s 30th-anniversary season.

Ed Note: The originally scheduled reviewer was indisposed; this report draws from 10-day-old impressions of one who happened to be in the audience without any plans to produce a review.

CJ Ru, Yale Ph.D. candidate in history, previously served tours of duty in the administrative offices of San Francisco Opera and Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale. 

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

  1. Bravo! As for the capacity audience. It was Oscar night.

    Comment by Bettina A Norton — March 7, 2019 at 12:19 pm

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