Recovering yesterday from a little dental surgery, I gave myself an album I’d had my eye on for some time: Orient – Occident, a 2006 release from the superstar of historically informed performance, Jordi Savall, and his ensemble Hespèrion XXI. I’ve admired Savall since being given a copy of the soundtrack to the 1991 film Tous les matins du monde (All the World’s Mornings). Largely on the strength of Savall’s playing, this film made two obscure baroque composers (Marin Marais and Sainte-Colombe, whose first name is a subject of debate) into French pop stars. Savall’s connection to Basel, where he taught viola da gamba at the world-famous Schola Cantorum Basiliensis and launched his recording career, is another reason for me to be partial to him. What’s more, he’s a student and champion of my favorite 16th-century composer, Diego Ortiz. ¡Como me gustan esas recercadas!
Anyway, this album is a departure from Savall’s early baroque fare, and it’s breathtaking. He takes his ensemble back to the Middle Ages, visiting every shore of the Mediterranean. Orient – Occident serves up Turkish, North African, and Sephardic music alongside the Italian istampittas that medieval music fans are used to. Savall makes the ancient vielle sing as it was meant to do, and as medieval musicians must have played it.
The modern movement to revive historical performance practices (instead of playing everything with Felix Mendelssohn’s equipment and techniques) has had to go through awkward periods in which even the most confident musician isn’t quite sure what to do with these exotic dinosaurs. The learning curve is steep, and “early music” recordings from the 1970s and earlier often have a grim, pedantic quality, or else — truth be told — they seem to be performed by people who turned to the harpsichord or viola da gamba because they couldn’t compete on the piano or cello.
But those days are gone. Thanks to millions of hours of practice, and a million more of poring over historical documents about the music of the past, the viola da gamba, vielle (even the vielle à roue) or the once-fashionable baryton or pardessus de viole have players who can shred strings with the best of them — past or present.
Does the music sound exactly the way that Alfonso the Wise heard it? As with any historical problem, we can never know for certain. But what’s plain is that “early music” performances give us something that departs, as it must, from the “classical” style we’re used to; that’s inspired by the written record left behind by people who performed and heard the music of the past; and that, most important, sounds good to our ears and has the capacity to touch our hearts.
I’m not doctrinaire about HIP (as “historically informed performance” is sometimes abbreviated). I think some of the casual “renaissance-fair” musicians out there are at least tolerable, even if they do little more than play Sixties folk music on a lute while singing with a vaguely Scottish accent. As for new works composed for ancient instruments, I’m all for it. And I think Bach’s Art of the Fugue sounds best when played by a viol consort (as it is here and here).
You probably don’t care what I think anyway. In case you do, Orient – Occident gets six stars out of five.
A couple more things to look at:
- Alex Ross, “The King of Spain: Jordi Savall at the Metropolitan Museum,” The New Yorker (May 2, 2005) — also at Alex Ross’s blog
- Sample the first track from Orient – Occident at YouTube. (It’s a Turkish composition, ca. 1700. Sound quality is not ideal.)
- Scene from Tous les matins du monde: The young Marais tries out in front of Sainte-Colombe and his daughters.