Llibre vermell de Montserrat

La Capella Reial de Catalunya, Hespérion XXI, Jordi Savall
71:46, DVD 73:45
AliaVox AVSA9919

Jordi Savall’s musical forces and the music of the Llibre Vermell seem like a marriage made in heaven, and indeed his 1979 recording of this music with Hesperion XX was a ground-breaking and highly influential contribution to our understanding of the performance possibilities for this repertoire. There was an improvisatory dimension in the EMI Reflexe recording (CDM 763071 2) which was something quite new in the early music revival, and a genuine understanding of the original context of the music which made these recordings unforgettable. Touchingly Savall is revisiting the material as a homage to his late wife, Montserrat Figueras, who featured prominently in the 1979 recording and whose name of course invokes the monastery of Montserrat where the Libre Vermell survived. This recording of the material is of a live performance which takes the form of a continuous sequence of the songs, linked by short instrumental meditations built upon the musical material we have just heard. This is a winning formula, which allows the largely cyclical material to unfold to maximum effect, and with musicians of the standard of Savall and his players, truly exquisite improvisations can be relied upon. Hesperion XXI are playing a galaxy of wind, stringed and percussion instruments, and if some people might feel this simple, almost folk music has been rather heavily ‘orchestrated’ by Savall, the effects are generally fascinating, although I did feel that the inclusion of the ravishing sounds of duduk and kanun may have played into Savall’s philosophy of a pan-Mediterranean sound rather than having any genuine authenticity. There are problems relating to the live recording, too, some of which are unavoidable, but others of which could have been dealt with. In listening to the CD, I was very aware of intrusive shufflings and clunkings during the instrumental improvisations, and it emerged on watching the DVD that these episodes provided cover for the singers to rearrange themselves on their creaky wooden staging. However, on some occasions the distractions are provided by carelessly noisy page-turning and unnecessary movements, a surprising lapse from musicians who must be used to studio recording etiquette. These were less distracting in the DVD, where at least we could see the source of the noises, although the DVD had its own visual distractions – singers who folded their black covered music over, ruining the visual effect, while the splendidly bearded Pedro Esteban distractingly flapped a single sheet of music in one hand while playing percussion with the other. Stage management is important in concerts, particularly if you are filming them! The sound was being recorded on two centrally placed microphones, capturing the lavish acoustic of Santa Maria del Pi in Barcelona, but making some musicians sound rather distant and sometimes slightly out of touch. So what has Savall learned about this music in the intervening 38 years? Maybe that isn’t the point – he is revisiting much-loved material, and the fact that his once so radical approach now seems rather mainstream is due almost entirely to his remarkable career. And if the ravishing Mariam matrem virginem misses the idiosyncratic and exquisite voice of Montserrat Figueras at her very best, maybe that makes its own point. It hardly needs said that the overall standard of this lavish Alia vox package is superb in every respect, packed with scholarly information with bibliography and pictures, and printed to the very highest standards. A bonus track featuring a Catalan song, which the musicians performed as a concert encore, rounds the programme off to perfection.

D. James Ross