The Boston Early Music Festival is one of the city’s preeminent music festivals. Thousands converge on the city’s concert and lecture halls to hear and discuss music predating the founding of modern-day Boston by centuries. The festival’s lineup includes a heady list of performers, groups, scholars and boosters. One of these is perennial favorite Jordi Savall and Hésperion XXI.
Savall and Hésperion XXI were in New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall to play a show called “Folias, Antiguas & Criollas: From the Ancient World to the New World.”
Savall is primarily a viol de gamba player, but for this show he also played the treble viol — essentially a violin-size bowed instrument played in the lap, like a cello. The instruments were strange and wonderful, and among them it was the theorbo that might’ve been the most marvelous.
The ensemble tackled an ambitious program that included 16th- to 18th-century Spanish and Scottish music. In keeping with Savall’s m.o. the pieces were played in their written form, after which the group improvised twisting melodies in sort of a round-robin approach. They’d push ahead, toy with certain figures, abandon old ideas for new ones, smile & nod at one another, ratchet up the intensity and then let it fall away.
From time to time there was some singing required, and Enrique Barona (above, second from left, next to Savall) handled those duties, standing and belting out Spanish lyrics. Barona also played the mosquito, a comically small guitar not unlike a ukelele.
After the break Savall came back by himself to play a few numbers on the gamba. Jordan Hall is a big place, and when it’s filled to capacity it can be hard for players to project without sounding labored, even on modern, super-powered instruments. There was no such problem here. The acrobatic runs and leaps Savall attempted were crystalline.
The most exciting moments came when the ensemble coalesced for some tutti shredding. With one eye at all times on Savall (some players didn’t use music at all) they’d pull together for showy finishes, chugging along at quick speeds, fingers snaking along fretboards, drums and rhythm instruments propelling them forward. It elicited a big crowd response every time, and Savall and Hésperion XXI obliged with many encores.
>>Tickets are already on sale for upcoming BEMF seasons, which you can buy by clicking here. Jordi Savall runs a label called ALIA VOX, which has all manner of great music and is well worth a perusal.