Monday, April 23, 2018

Savall’s New Album Celebrates the Viol Consort

courtesy of PIAS

As can be seen from the design of its cover, the latest album featuring the early music ensemble Hespèrion XXI and its Director Jordi Savall is entitled Musica Nova: Harmonie des Nations 1500–1700. ALIA VOX will release this recording this coming Friday; and, as may be expected, is currently processing pre-orders. The release will take place just before Hespèrion XXI will begin a North American tour on April 29 in Durham, North Carolina. The tour will last about two weeks, concluding at the Boston Early Music Festival on May 11.

Because a little knowledge is a dangerous thing (thank you, Alexander Pope), enthusiastic readers should be cautioned that the album title does not refer to ars nova, the term that designates how polyphony in the fourteenth century differed significantly from the polyphonic practices at Notre Dame (ars antiqua), which developed between 1170 and 1320 and are usually taken to be the earliest disciplined practices of polyphony. As one can tell from the dates in the album title, this is a much later period, during which at least three publications of collected music were published using that same title, two in Venice (instrumental music in 1540 and vocal music in 1568) and one in Leipzig in 1626, consisting of the music of Johann Schein.

However, none of these collections figure in this new album either! Instead, the album surveys the development of repertoire for a consort of viols. The origin of this instrument dates from the end of the fifteenth century; and, as Savall observes in his booklet notes (translated into English by Jacqueline Minett), the instrument was made to imitate the human voice, meaning that it could be played in groups with parts corresponding to soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. At this point I should depart from the technical and confess that I am a sucker for viol consorts. The summer when the training Academy run by American Bach Soloists had enough viol students to form (together with their teacher) a viol consort remains a high point in my memories of past listening experiences. The extended number of strings (usually six) and the reverberations arising from the tuning of the open strings endows the instrument itself with some of the richest sonorities in the string family; and, when these instruments perform as a group, the impact can be overwhelming.

That impact is what makes this new album such a treat. The basic consort consists of Savall (also serving a leader), Sergi Casademunt, Lorenz Duftschmid, and Philippe Pierlot. Continuo is provided by Xavier Puertas on violone and Xavier Díaz-Latorre alternating among archlute, theorbo, and guitar. In several of the selections they are joined by percussionist Pedro Estevan.

The selections themselves are presented in roughly chronological order, beginning with anonymous dance music from Venice dating from the very beginning of the sixteenth century and working through to the end of the seventeenth century with selections of Iberian dances and music based on the “Folia” theme. As might be expected, some of the composers are better known than others. The British contributors, John Dowland and Orlando Gibbons, are likely to be the best known, as will be Marc-Antoine Charpentier, who wrote music for the consort of viols that performed in service to King Louis XIV of France.

Those of a more scholarly bent might be inclined to track the “progress of history” over the course of this album; but I have to confess that my own personal inclination is just to sit back and enjoy it all!

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