Friday, January 13, 2017

ALIA VOX Brings Back Memories of an Old Favorite Vinyl Recording

ALIA VOX is the “house label” for Jordi Savall, his Hespèrion XXI instrumental ensemble, and his choir, La Capella Reial de Catalunya. Savall is very much a “grand old man” in the revived interest in historically-informed performances of early music, which has been his specialty for almost half a century. Born in Catalonia, he uses Barcelona as his base of operations but has an international touring schedule for both performance and teaching purposes.

Exactly one week from today, ALIA VOX (also based in Barcelona in the Bellaterra quarter) will release Savall’s latest recording project, which documents a concert performance of all the music in the Llibre Vermell de Montserrat (red book of Montserrat). This is a collection of devotional texts and medieval songs from the fourteenth century, whose pages were collected and bound with a red cover in the nineteenth century. The music in this collection consisted of twelve songs, only ten of which survived to be included in the bound volume. No composers were identified for any of the music in the collection. As is usually the case, is currently taking pre-orders for this new release.

I have to confess a strong personal interest in this release. If I look back half a century on my own life, I remember when I began to collect the vinyl recordings released by the Musical Heritage Society. At that time I was particularly interested in an ongoing series entitled History of Spanish Music. This involved reissuing releases by Hispavox that had been produced by Roberto Pla, who also provided the liner notes. The Musical Heritage Society became the United States distribution source for these recordings, and Pla’s notes were translated into English by Martha Litchman.

These recordings were distinguished by the vivid interpretations given to early music. Every production that Pla supervised attached more priority to the immediacy of making music than to source documents (that offered few clues as to what performance would entail). Thus, what might begin as a monodic line on a manuscript would flower into a rich vocal interpretation accompanied by the sorts of instruments consistent with the time of the source material. Performance thus amounted to a hybrid of fidelity to what little had been documented combined with the spontaneity of improvisation.

The third volume in the History of Spanish Music series was entitled Music in Catalonia until the XIVth Century. That was where I first encountered the Llibre Vermell. One of the first things that struck me was how many of the monodic lines could be sung as canons, meaning that much of the recording was rich with a contrapuntal fabric that, while relatively static, kept changing in sonority as different levels of voices would assume different phrases from the theme. Another thing that struck me was the imaginative diversity of instrumental accompaniment applied to the vocal lines of all of the selections. However, what really caught my attention were the asymmetric qualities of the rhythms. Phrase lines rarely conformed the sort of single length that we expect most songs to have; and, as the length would vary, so also would the metric stress patterns within each of those phrases. As a result listening was almost a matter of settling into a predictable pattern.

Having established such a rich context based on past experience, I am happy to report that all of those wonderful memories flooded back into consciousness as I began to listening to Savall’s new recording. Indeed, they were enhanced in an unexpected manner. It turned out that the audio engineers responsible for capturing this performance were joined by a video crew. As a result, the packaging included a “bonus” DVD. This is particularly valuable for those wishing to see the instruments responsible for the rich diversity of sonorities that accompany the vocal work.

That packaging, by the way, takes the form of a hardbound book, whose face is only slightly larger in surface than the usual CD jewel case. As might be guessed, the binding for this book is red. Unfortunately, the text portion of this book has neither table of contents nor index. This makes the contents a bit difficult to negotiate, particularly since the background material is provided in Catalan, French, English, Castilian Spanish, German, and Italian. The source texts of the songs are translated into all six of these languages; so even following the songs themselves is not particularly easy. (The video has no subtitles at all.)

Thus, for the most part, this book is an inconvenience. Fortunately, that inconvenience is a minor one. What matters most is the music itself, and supplementing the auditory experience with a visual one makes for a highly memorable asset. The “bonus DVD” in this package is far from a luxury; it provides a valuable enhancement to the listening experience.

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