Jordi Savall with Xavier Díaz-Latorre

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Published: 1st April, 2019

The wonderful acoustic and ambience of Elisabeth Murdoch Hall provided a showcase for Jordi Savall (on a 1697 bass viol) and Xavier Díaz-Latorre (theorbo and guitar, both by contemporary makers) to fill the space with sublime Baroque music, intimate but at the same time resonant, ranging from a gentle and pensive mood to a full-bodied exciting sound. As a mark of their musicianship, it was often difficult to distinguish where either was following the score, or improvising and embellishing. The concert also illustrated the importance of the visual experience; their virtuosic techniques and especially Jordi Savall’s bowing in the fast sections were integral to the performance and underscored why we attend live concerts rather than just listening to a CD.

The program was chosen to illustrate the tension and eventual rapprochement between two styles of playing, jeu de mélodie and its transition in the latter part of the seventeenth century to jeu d’harmonie – hence the title of the concert, Les Goûts Réunis. John Weretka’s pre-concert talk was a helpful expansion of the excellent program notes: Louis XIV’s distaste for the Italian jeu d’harmonie style meant that the traditional French jeu de mélodie style prevailed in France for most of his reign until Marais and others began championing a blending of melody and harmony for which the bass viol was eminently suited.

The concert began with two pieces from Marin Marais’ Suite No.6 in Pièces de viole du Second Livre (1701): a slow, almost mournful Prélude leading into a lively and lyrical Rondeau Champêtre. It was a treat to hear the theorbo as a duo (or in later pieces, solo) instrument, with its distinctive sound quality. Xavier Díaz-Latorre left the stage for the next two pieces for solo bass viol. The first was an Allemande transcribed by Jordi Savall from one of Bach’s cello suites and demonstrated the “distinctive mix of melodic and harmonic writing” (program note). This led into an Aria Burlesca by Johannes Schenck whose strange chordal progressions and rhythms were nevertheless exciting to listen to (and watch) – as the program note put it, “con molto bizzarie”!

Xavier Díaz-Latorre returned for the last piece before interval comprising nine of the 33 movements of Suite d’un goût étranger from Marais’ Pièces de viole du Quatrième Livre (1717). These were well chosen for variety of mood, style and dynamic range, and two of the movements (L’Arabesque and La Reveuse) would have been familiar to those who saw the wonderful 1991 film featuring Jordi Savall’s playing, Tous Les Matins du Monde. In the final Muzette movement you could imagine a young girl skipping through fields buzzing with bees

After interval Jordi Savall took to the stage alone for three English pieces based on the lyra-viol technique of retuning the strings of the viol. After a lively Coranto by Alfonso Ferrabosco (notwithstanding his name, born and bred in England), Savall introduced a fascinating ornament, the thumpe, in Why Not Here of Thomas Ford, and La Cloche attributed to Simon Ives, which involved pizzicato playing by the left hand – often continuing to bow with the right. In La Cloche this did indeed create the effect of bells.

Next was a Prélude and Chaconne for solo theorbo by Robert de Visée from Pièces de théorbe (G major) in a manuscript compiled by de Visée’s student Saizenay. These were an ideal vehicle for Xavier Díaz-Latorre to demonstrate his mastery of free ornamentation and interpretation over the ground bass of the chaconne. This improvisational skill was also evident in Jordi Savall’s playing in Sieur de Machy’s Prélude in D minor for solo viol that followed.

The Marais Les Voix humaines from Suite No.3 in Pièces de viole du Second Livre was a contemplative and utterly beautiful rendition from Jordi Savall with rich bass underlay, illustrating perfectly the comparison of the viol with the human voice.

As a complete contrast the concert concluded with both musicians together for a wonderful set of variations and improvisations on the well-known La Folia by the Spanish Franciscan friar Antonio Martín y Coll, with Xavier Díaz-Latorre exchanging his theorbo for the guitar for the first section, returning to the theorbo, then finishing on the guitar. The pair threw phrases to one another, fully exploiting the character of their instruments. What an exciting finish to the concert!

Except that it wasn’t quite the end as, after rapturous applause, we were treated to two encores. Unfortunately, Jordi Savall has a soft speaking voice and as he didn’t use a microphone I couldn’t make out his introductions to these pieces. In the first he used harmonics to make high-pitched squeaks to Díaz-Latorre’s guitar accompaniment, to the amusement of the audience. The second encore was variations on a lament, with an almost Scottish flavor, for viol and theorbo, ending with gentle plucking to silence on both instruments.

A surprise followed to complete the night: Jordi Savall was presented with Lifetime Membership of the Melbourne Recital Centre, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. In his speech of thanks he left us with the poignant message that music is part of humanity and makes the distance between people shorter – a message that is surely crucial in the kind of world we are living in.

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Kristina Macrae attended “Les Goûts Réunis: the Viola da Gamba at the Time of Marin Marais” performed by Jordi Savall and Xavier Díaz-Latorre at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, on March 29, 2019.