Jordi Savall

A wealth of experience

Musician Jordi Savall overcomes cultural barriers in his art, and several centuries as well.

Somewhere or other Jordi Savall must own a garage – in Bellaterra perhaps, the suburb of Barcelona where the label Alia Vox is based that he founded over 20 years ago. And in this garage, amongst meter-long shelves full of Savall's recordings and awards, there stands a time machine – it'a the only explanation. A silver time capsule with a flux compensator like in »Back to the Future«, that would fit perfectly. But not all wasted and full of dents like at the end of the Robert Zemeckis film series, but perfectly shaped and elegant like Jordi Savall himself. The Catalonian musician has been making his mark on the international music scene for 50 years now.

That sounds like a pretty long time, perhaps even a bit fuddy-duddy to some people. But the viol player, conductor and music scholar is on no account old-fashioned just because he effortlessly overcomes the centuries. Savall doesn't use the time machine we are presuming he owns to travel through music history like a tourist and marvel at what seem to be alien cultures from outside. On the contrary, he literally buries himself in previous eras, immersing himself in them and always ready to make new discoveries. It is a great art to retain such curiosity and such an unfeigned eye – an art that calls for exceptional sensitivity. »Let's assume I didn't know that I was born on 1st August 1941«, Savall once explained. »It wouldn't make any difference to me: what I feel, my mental capacity and physical abilities are not dependent on numbers. What I can say is: you're young as long as you still have visions and creativity.«

Concert streams: Jordi Savall conducts Beethoven

Listening to Beethoven as if it was the first time – the acclaimed concert given by Jordi Savall and his Early Music ensemble in the Laeiszhalle will soon be available to stream: the recordings of the 6th and the 7th symphonies are being released separately.

Jordi Savall
Jordi Savall © Toni Peñarroya

Experience and development :Jordi Savall and his feeling for music

It's all a question of the right perspective, in other words. For example, when studying the opera composer Monteverdi and his rediscovery of voice around 1600, one has to forget one's knowledge of Richard Wagner's powerfully eloquent music dramas from the late 19th century and concentrate on how the world looked to Monteverdi.

»When we listen to music, we experience the same feelings as people did 100 years ago when listening to the same piece.«. This sentence, which Savall has often repeated in different versions, seems quite logical at first glance and not subject to any dispute. For instance, the second movement of Beethoven's »Eroica« reminds us so clearly of a funeral march that the music elicits sad and painful feelings. But how would it be if we were hearing a funeral march for the first time in our lives? Would we then automatically feel sad? Or would we possibly understand the music as a lullaby?

We automatically look for points of reference in things already heard or experienced. The horizon of our experience grows continually in the course of a lifetime, and generally not in one and the same direction. But Jordi Savall does not leave his horizon of experience to chance: he guards it as if it was a treasure. He chooses the direction from which he approaches a work, and then lets the music itself guide him.

 

»Music is a language that is not shaped by the intellect – it originates in emotions. You can only play the music well if you feel something.«

Jordi Savall

 

Jordi Savall has always been able to rely on his feelings in his musical career. Thus the trained cellist changed early on to his favourite instrument, the viola da gamba, and he already realised as a student that Early Music would be his first home. Together with his wife, the soprano Montserrat Figueras (d. 2011), he set up his first own ensemble in 1974: Hespèrion XXI concentrated on early Spanish and Portuguese music. The two of them founded another ensemble in 1987, the Capella Reial de Catalunya, which was to perform medieval sacred music, and shortly after that Le Concert des Nations was born, a chamber orchestra that played repertoire from the Baroque to the Romantic era on original instruments.

Jordi Savalls Auseinandersetzung mit Beethoven :Jordi Savall about Beethoven

With the latter ensemble, Le Concert des Nations, Savall had already planned to present his view of the Beethoven symphonies in the Laeiszhalle in 2020. And before the pandemic thwarted this project for the time being, he explained: »I will be adopting a different approach because I am coming to Beethoven via the music of Bach or Rameau, while many other conductors come from the opposite direction, from Brahms or Mahler. From their perspective one could easily think that Beethoven belongs to the same Late Romantic style. But this is actually not true.«

We owe our modern picture of Beethoven chiefly to the Romantic era: a boorish fellow with a mop of curly hair and a fondness for an intense musical idiom, so we shouldn't be surprised if Savall, now that the concerts have been rescheduled, knocks us off our feet with his readings. »These symphonies contain an incredible wealth of detail that show what aspects of Early Music can still be found in Beethoven – unequal playing, for example, or a differentiated articulation that can only be realised properly on gut strings.«

The above-mentioned principle of »notes inégales« comes from the Baroque: notes that are really of equal value are not played at the same length, but so differently from one another that a dance-like, even swinging impression is created. This is a technique that goes without saying for the members of Le Concert des Nations, and by the same token gut strings are obligatory in the ensemble: these produce a wonderfully warm and differentiated sound, but they require a lot of looking after and tend to snap easily, so that they are no longer used on modern instruments.

 

Le Concert des Nations und Jordi Savall
Le Concert des Nations und Jordi Savall in der Laeiszhalle (Oktober 2021) © Daniel Dittus

One can only possess all this knowledge and, even more importantly, make optimum use of it if one looks at Beethoven's music from a particular perspective – in the context of when it was written. »Then we see what is new in Beethoven's work,« Savall explains. »The use of bowing and a hitherto unwonted articulation with accents, pronounced contrasts and sudden changes in dynamics.« And what about the controversial metronome markings said to be Beethoven's own? Savall adheres to them, and doesn't find them too fast at all.

There is one more important point that Savall emphasises: »Haydn composed 107 symphonies, Mozart 41 and Beethoven only nine – every one of which represents a revolution, a reboot. And he wasn't only writing for an elite audience like Haydn or Mozart, he was writing for mankind. Beethoven tried to express himself very directly, and when you're coming from the Baroque repertoire like me and my musicians, every bar, every phrase is a surprise.«

EVERY CORNER OF THE WORLD :Jordi Savall as a cosmopolitan musician

Savall's work consists as much of taking a new look at familiar repertoire as it does of approaching unfamiliar music without prejudice. And he always has today's people in mind when he digs around in the past. No musical corner of the world seems too distant for him: he has explored the music of desert peoples in Africa and Asia and the musical traditions of indigenous South American peoples, and has put them on stage with local musicians and his own ensembles.

In 2016 he was moved by the floods of refugees heading to Europe, and visited camps in Calais und Thessaloniki. His verdict: »The refugee situation in Europe is nothing short of scandalous. It goes against everything that Europe should be doing to help these people.« With his ensemble Hespèrion XXI, many of whose members in the meantime hail from Syria,  Greece, Morocco and Turkey, Savall organised benefit concerts with 14th century music from southern Europe which has a good deal in common with the music of the Oriental countries that the refugees come from.

Jordi Savall
Jordi Savall © David Ignaszewski

ALL THE MORNINGS OF THE WORLD :A film about music

Jordi Savall had his greatest success with a wider public eaxctly 30 years ago in the cinema: he wrote the music for director Alain Corneau's film »Tous les matins du monde«. Savall did not really have any experience of film productions, but he soon realised that this project was not supposed to be just a music film, but a film about music. The film tells the story of master viol player Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe from the second half of the 17th century, who lives in bitterness and seclusion in the country near Paris. His ambitious young pupil Marin Marais, completely his opposite in terms of character, visits him and upsets the ageing master's hardened view of the world.

Savall choose music by François Couperin, Jean-Baptiste Lully and of course the two main characters for his soundtrack – and brought such sensitivity and intimate understanding to the task that he must already have been using his time machine in those days. Be that as it may: when he gets this famous programme out of the garage to play it in time for the Elbphilharmonie's fifth anniversary, we can be sure it will sound as if it had only just been written.


Text: Renske Steen, last updated: 29.11.2021
English translation: Clive Williams

Konzert-Streams :Jordi Savall dirigiert Beethoven in der Laeizhalle

Jordi Savall
Jordi Savall © Daniel Dittus

Beethovens 6. Sinfonie »Pastorale«

Jordi Savall
Jordi Savall © Daniel Dittus

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