Jordi Savall is strongly devoted, perhaps more so than any other conductor, to Franz Josef Haydn's Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross in its orchestral version, the original incarnation of this masterwork; the familiar string quartet and less familiar solo keyboard and oratorio versions came later. Savall, as is his wont, strongly responds to any music with a historic connection to his native Spain; the commission for the Seven Last Words arrived from José Sáenz de Santmaría of the confraternity of the Hermandad, and it was first performed in Cádiz, the oldest continuously inhabited city in Western Europe.
It is 22 years since Savall and Koopman first recorded the Bach gamba sonatas, in the days when Koopman still looked like he should have been presenting The Old Grey Whistle Test. This release for Savall's own Alia Vox label, however, is right up to date, a tame-haired Koopman and an amazingly unaltered Savall having set them down at the beginning of this year. The recording's quick turnaround is a fitting reflection of the state of the musical relationship that has obtained between these two ever since they first performed together in 1970 after only half an hour's rehearsal. Make no mistake, these Bach performances are right in the slot.
The Misteri d'Elx (Mystery Play of Elche) is a religious drama performed annually in the southeastern Spanish city of Elche (or Elx in the local dialect) since medieval times. The play reenacts the Assumption of Mary in a two-act musical production, entirely sung, that takes place over two successive days in August. The Mystery Play is a major European tourist attraction, and UNESCO in 2001 named it a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. With typical boldness, Jordi Savall and La Capella Reial de Catalunya plunge into a slice of the musical past that is rewarding yet raises complex issues in performance. Here, however, the group is not resurrecting a half-buried tradition but rather dealing with one that is living.
Each year the magical setting of the gardens of the Castle of Versailles (one of the most visited sites in France and, indeed, Europe) are the setting for a fairy-tale fountain display. Devised during the reign of Louis XIV, this impressive spectacle set to music reflected the power and the majesty of the King himself. This year, the musical programme has been entrusted to Jordi Savall, who has selected some of the finest treasures from the Alia Vox catalogue. This is a landmark album, a unique selection performed by the leading specialists in the repertoire, those same artists who popularised this music and contributed to the success that it enjoys today.
Although the first full consort of viols did not arrive in England until 1540, there were actually several intriguing examples of what are now called "consort" music from before that time. Of course, the homogenous viol consort became supreme, and the present program (also featuring some 2-lute arrangements) focuses on the first part of that repertory. This developed at Elizabeth's court in the 1570s & 1580s, among professional musicians, but based on relatively restrictive models. Some pieces in the present program are composed freely, heralding the next step in consort development which, along with the small output of Byrd, allowed the English consort idiom to fully flower. Of course that was followed closely by the even larger and more famous repertory of consort music by composers such as Gibbons which was eventually geared more toward amateur players.
In the semi-darkness within a grotto beneath the church of Santo Rosario in Cadiz, the bishop pronounced one of the seven Last Words of Christ, then, during the ensuing silence, the orchestra played… Commissioned from Haydn in 1786, these seven mystical sonatas, with their sombre melody, take their inspiration from the rhythm of each of the seven Words. Preceded by a noble Prelude and followed by an impressive Terremoto (Earthquake), there have been various versions (piano, string quartet, vocal), but here they are presented in the original version and with all the glowing colours of the Concert des Nations.
Like the Renaissance itself, Music for the Spanish Kings begins with a strutting fanfare and ends with a melancholic sigh. Attaining his usual high standards, Jordi Savall has fashioned a poignant and varied musical portrait of the century encompassing the reigns of three Spanish kings: Alphonso I (1442-58), Ferdinand I (1458-94), and Charles V (1516-56). Montserrat Figueras' rich mezzo-soprano voice carries over half the pieces on the first disc. Her stunning vibrato imparts a troupadour's sadness to the cancions.
This disc of Iberian and Latin American Renaissance music is a reissue cleverly disguised as a new release. It compiles music from several recordings by Catalonian visionary Jordi Savall, his luminous-voiced collaborator Montserrat Figueras, and his Hesperion XXI and Capella Reial de Catalunya ensembles, dressing them up with a new set of rather philosophical booklet notes on themes of change, of intercultural tolerance, and of the evolving nature of Christianity in the Iberian realm and in New Spain. Some might call this a cynical ploy, but actually Savall has always been moving in a circle, so to speak, spiraling inward toward a deeper musical understanding of the historical themes touched on here: the lingering effects of the legacy of medieval Iberia and its "mestissage" or mixture of cultures, the reign of Holy Roman Emperor Charles (Carlos) V (did you know that he was both the first monarch to be called "His Majesty" and the first to be honored with the claim that the "sun never set" on his empire?), and the relationships between cultivated and popular styles, both in Iberia and the New World.
This is a reissue of a recording from 1993 (re-released a few years ago and deleted in 2003), recently remastered for SACD, and it really impresses with a renewed presence and impact, even on standard CD playback. As I said in my original review, Savall's reading "comes as close as these things can to placing us in the best seat in the house and treats us to a rare experience: the sensation of believing we're hearing a ruggedly familiar piece for the first time. Literally bursting with energy, scintillating strings, blazing horns, and incisive winds, and never boring even for one second, these performances give you Handel at his most exciting." If you have the earlier release, you probably don't need this one–unless you now own an SACD system–but it does deserve a place in every Handel collection, not only for the unsurpassed performances, but also for the effect of Savall's several decidedly "non-standard" tempos(!), and of course for the phenomenal sound, which now must have reached its ultimate realism in this format.