It’s hard to believe Jordi Savall is 78. Hard to think the Grammy-winning Catalonian viol player and conductor is that old because he seems ageless; hard to think he’s that young because it seems he’s been revolutionizing early music forever. The Boston Early Music Festival first presented him in 1989; Friday’s concert at Harvard’s Sanders Theater marked his 16th BEMF appearance. The programs he and his ensembles — Hespèrion XXI, La Capella Reial de Catalunya, and Le Concert des Nations — offer travel the world, from his native Iberia to the British Isles, France, Italy, Istanbul, Armenia, the Balkans, the Middle East, China, Japan, and the New World. The record label he founded, Alia Vox, features those ensembles in well over 125 sumptuous releases that range as far afield as Bach’s B-minor Mass, Mozart’s last three symphonies, Beethoven’s Eroica, and, just out, Handel’s Messiah. There are even CD/book extravaganzas devoted to such subjects as Christopher Columbus, Joan of Arc, the Cathars, Jerusalem, and Don Quixote.
For Friday’s concert, which looked to be sold out, Savall brought Hespèrion XXI and La Capella Reial de Catalunya for a program titled “Splendor of the Iberian Baroque in the Time of Lope de Vega and Calderón de la Barca.” Félix Lope de Vega (1562–1635) and Pedro Caldéron de la Barca (1600–1681) were the two great playwrights of the Spanish Baroque, though Lope was also a poet, novelist, and marine and Calderón was a poet, a soldier, and, at one time, a Roman Catholic priest. Neither was a composer of music, but, as Rui Vieira Nery’s program note explains, music was an intrinsic part of theater in 17th-century Spain. There was the opening tono for four voices and continuo; there were songs and dances throughout, musical interludes between acts, and a fin de fiesta conclusion. “More than half of the comedias and autos by Lope de Vega,” Nery tells us, “incorporate specific references to particular songs, some with texts by Lope himself, others taken from the current songbook of his time.”
The program note was actually recycled from the liner note for the 2003 Hespèrion XX album Entremeses del siglo del oro: Lope de Vega y su tiempo: 1550–1650. Friday’s selections, however, were drawn from a variety of Alia Vox releases, Entremeses del siglo del oro but also Villancicos y danzas criollas, Ministriles reales, and El nuevo mundo.
Savall has brought ensembles great and small to Boston. The last two times I heard him, in 2012 and 2017, it was just a seven-piece version of Hespèrion XXI. In 2010, on the other hand, for a “Jerusalem” program, he packed the Sanders Theatre stage with nearly 50 performers. Friday he had 11. The vocal quintet from La Capella Reial de Catalunya comprised Èlia Casanova (soprano), Lixsania Fernández (mezzo-soprano), David Sagastume (counter-tenor), Víctor Sordo (tenor), and Víctor Torres (bass). The viol consort had Savall (treble and bass), Fernández (the mezzo-soprano doubling on tenor), Juan Manuel Quintana (bass), and Xavier Puertas (violone). Xavier Díaz-Latorre (guitar and theorbo), Andrew Lawrence-King (Spanish Baroque harp), and David Mayoral (percussion) rounded out the ensemble.
This “Splendor” was predictably splendid. That owed in part to the splendor of the selections, which reflected Iberia’s melting pot of Moor, Jew, Christian, and New World. But Savall’s forces also underlined the interplay between sacred and secular in this music. And the songs danced in the same way that the dances did.
The program opened with a kicky moresca from Pedro Guerrero propelled, as so much of the evening was, by Díaz-Latorre’s guitar and Mayoral’s imaginative percussion. The jácaras, with their street origins, were insinuating dances with hints of sexual aggression played by Díaz-Latorre and Lawrence-King; the canarios that followed were faster but still teasing. A somber Pedro de San Lorenzo folía, without percussion, found the viol family — warmer and more intimate than their cello descendants — blending as if they were singers. Lawrence-King introduced Santiago de Murcia’s fandango as “duel for a man and a woman in a dance to the death . . . nothing less than love-making from beginning to end” — and backed that up in the changing moods of his seductive performance. Grounded by heavy drum, Sebastián Aguilera de Heredia’s tiento de batalla was a slow battle march. Then Savall improvised on anonymous canarios, soaring into the upper limits of audibility.
Alternating with the dances, the songs spoke of frustrated love. The vocal quintet (with Fernández playing and singing simultaneously) was lusty in Manuel Machado’s tale of “thrusting” April’s victory over winter and searing in Juan Blas de Castro’s “Desde las torres del alma,” with its story of a man “bewitched by eyes / as beautiful as they were false.” In the anonymous “De tu vista celosa,” Sordo and Torres sang of the half-frozen village priest who pulls back the coverlet of his bed and lets his housekeeper in. Sometimes Casanova came center to front the singers, but in these pieces solo work was second to vocal harmony.
The first half ended, as Savall’s concerts often do, with the opening track from Villancicos y danzas criollas, the 2003 album that the New Yorker’s Alex Ross called Savall’s “party record.” The words to Juan Arañés’s chacona “A la vida bona” seem to have taken their cue from Cervantes’s suggestion that “The dance of the chaconne / is wider than the sea” and that “The dance of the chaconne / surrounds the good life.” Out come a riot of dancers, one after another, local heroes and classical entities including the daughters of Aeneas, the sister-in-law of Orpheus, the physicians Galen and Asklepios, and Venus herself. On this occasion I missed the brass and winds that back the recorded version, but the less raucous Sanders performance encouraged us to focus on the irrepressibly nonsensical text, right down to “Along came thirty Sundays / with twenty Mondays on their backs, / and with them an unwilling donkey / bearing the load in his packs.”
The second half saw love move in the direction of the Virgin Mary. Before that, however, Savall, switching to bass viol, dazzled in Antonio Martín y Coll’s “Diferencias sobre las folías,” swooning and sighing one moment, passionate the next. A “plainchant to the Immaculate Virgin” was sung reverently, but if you didn’t have the words to the Peruvian “No ay entendimento humano” in front of you, you’d have thought that this song in praise of Mary was party time once again, with Savall bowing wildly in the breaks. The same was true of the closing number, “¡Ay, que me abraso, ay!,” where the Bethlehem shepherds, finding the infant Jesus laughing and crying, celebrate his birth with a lively Afro-Cuban guaracha. The animated Fernández looked as if she wanted to get up and dance; with her blue hair, a bright contrast to the black outfits, she seemed to embody the playful, mischievous streak evident in everyone else.
Some on-stage hugging and kissing and salutes to both sides of the balcony were followed by a single encore, the Peruvian “A la mar me llevan” from the 2017 double album The Routes of Slavery. Then Savall waved goodbye. But not for long: he’ll be back on November 8, with La Capella Reial de Catalunya and Le Concert des Nations, for a Monteverdi program titled “Madrigals of Love and War.”
Jeffrey Gantz has been writing about music, dance, theater, art, film, and books for the past 35 years, first for the Boston Phoenix and currently for the Boston Globe.