(Photo credit: Molina Visuals)
On 24 January 2003, I witnessed a vibrant soul at play on Vienna’s Konzerthaus stage. Leading La Capella Reial de Catalunya and Le Concert des Nations in a program of madrigals and sinfonias by Claudio Monteverdi, Johann Hermann Schein and Samuel Scheidt, Jordi Savall’s performance was everything the music was: thrilling, captivating and, above all, inviting. On April 15, hunched over his bass viol (the fretted, cello-like instrument of which he is a legendary virtuoso) and accompanied by soloists from Le Concert des Nations, I saw a changed man—a man playing for himself, as if into a mirror.
It was more than a little surprising that, from a musician who boasts nearly 200 recordings, we should encounter such a pedantic program. Composers Jean de Sainte-Colombe and protégé Marin Marais were surely familiar to anyone who has at least glanced at Savall’s 40-year career, which broke international waters when he provided the soundtrack for the 1991 film Tous les Matins du Monde, a dramatization of Marais’s relationship with his reclusive teacher. By far, the musical offerings from those masters of the instrument were highlights of the evening’s performance. Sainte-Colombe’s brooding Tombeau les Regrets was a rare chance to hear Savall in duet. The sound of two bass viols alone was nothing short of transportive. Even the leading violin of Marais’s Sonnerie de Ste-Geneviève du Mont-de-Paris, an inventive piece meant to evoke the din of church bells, could do nothing to undermine their resonance.
The same could not be said for the rest of the program, which distilled unremarkable background music from some of the biggest names in the 17th-century French Baroque. Anonymous selections from the era of Louis XIII set the tone for the program’s theme, which sought to articulate the splendor of the French Bourbon court. And yet, what began as a royal affair settled into what felt like a glorified rehearsal. This was not only because of the awkward staging (the musicians were, for instance, left floundering without assistance when a music stand broke), but also because court music was for the most part incidental and not designed to be heard out of context. And so, whatever stateliness might have infused its origins, this music came across not as regal but as dolorous. This rendered the listening experience both intriguing and depressing. While on the one hand we could feel ourselves traveling back in time, on the other it reminded us of the transience of power and arbitrariness of kingly life. It was like hearing history crumble before our very ears, leaving only a handful of extant sonic monuments to an unrecoverable age. Even the jewelry of violin and flute seemed to harbor shadows of doubt. It was a strange thing: this music would not have existed without the power structures that engendered it, but its occasional beauties spoke of realms far beyond any artifice of courtly refinement.
From a curatorial perspective, missed opportunities abounded. For one, there was no chance to hear the unaccompanied solo viol, and two duo miniatures by Antoine Forqueray and his son Jean-Baptiste were etudinal at best, further diluted by a superfluous keyboard backbone. Despite father Forqueray being once called by Savall “a knight who is always on the verge of working his horse to death, but who knows his horse too well to go quite that far,” there was little proof of concept. For another, to be in the presence of renowned harpsichordist Pierre Hantaï, only to find him relegated to a continuo (i.e., supporting) role was curious, even if we did hear some of his brilliance come through in three selections from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s 1741 Pièces de Clavecin en Concerts. Yet with so much rich keyboard literature to choose from among the likes of Rameau and François Couperin, I couldn’t help but scratch my head over the latter’s Les Concerts Royaux, of which the three sections played were like the courtiers they were meant to entertain: passive and overdressed. (Far more active, though no less dressed, was the suite from Jean-Baptiste Lully’s 1670 Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, after which the musicians were, for once, visibly satisfied.) Why not choose from something more suitable for a live setting, such as Couperin’s 1728 collection of suites for viol? Likewise, the inclusion of Jean-Marie Leclair’s Sonata in D Major, Op. 2, No. 8 was apocryphal at best, especially when one considers the lack of any credible evidence suggesting that Leclair even played at the court of Louis XIV. Why not instead bring another violinist and play the far more mature fascinations of his Opus 5?
In light of the fact that Savall has become increasingly known as an artist of difference, weaving together wide-ranging faiths, histories and spiritual threads through the loom of his musical vision, perhaps there was too much similarity. In the end, the playing, while effortless, was self-contained and the virtuosity incidental. And while one may never fully see into the heart of another, it was impossible to watch Savall and not mourn for him. Since facing immeasurable personal tragedy in 2011, we may only speculate about the depth of his loss and stand in awe at his creative resolve. Having recently lost someone close to me, I am admittedly primed to give such a reading, but I couldn’t help but feel the melancholy rose of his heart wilting just a little under the spotlight. It made me want to hear him play alone, if only to let that heart sing without obstacle, so that it might throw open a window into its own unrecoverable past. With this realization—or projection, if you will—in tow, I left the concert hall berating myself for the above criticisms and share them here only in the interest of full disclosure. It was a sobering reminder that there is far more to gain in this world than there is to lose. And at any rate, the world has gained so much from Savall already that one mere lackluster performance will leave no dent in his legacy.