Feature Article

Interview:  Meet Jordi Savall

June, 2006

Jason Victor Serinus


Jordi Savall's reputation as one of our pre-eminent exponents of Early Music continues to grow with each new CD release. Credited with the revival of the viola da gamba, Savall and his wife, the superb soprano Montserrat Figueras, founded Hesperion XX in 1974. (They renamed it Hesperion XXI in 2000). The ensemble's goal was to explore Western European music, and Spanish music in particular, written before the 19th century.

Since then, Savall and his three ensembles (discussed below) have issued close to three-dozen recordings on a host of labels, including their own, Alia Vox. Among Savall's award-winning recordings are works for viola da gamba by Francois Couperin, Marin Marais, and Antoine Forqueray. Savall's soundtrack for the 1992 movie, Tous les matins du monde, that celebrated the life of Marin Marais, has sold over 500,000 copies worldwide and helped inspire renewed interest in the French baroque.

Last fall, when the 64-year old artist made one of his frequent trips to Berkeley to perform with Cal Performances, we met face-to-face for a long and rewarding interview.

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Jason Victor Serinus: You cancelled your U.S. tour a few years ago after the U.S. invaded Iraq. What is it like to be back in the United States performing?

Jordi Savall: I think at a certain point you cannot always assume that the decisions on the part of political institutions represent the will of the people. There were many different reasons for the decision we made in 2003. It was a very personal and strongly felt situation for us as musicians, and we weren't in a position to comprehend what all the elements represented. But it was not a criticism of the American people; it was a criticism of the government, which is a different thing. A lot of people understand why we did what we did.

The Spanish government also supports the war in Iraq, but the majority of the Spanish people do not. I have played the viola da gamba in the square in Barcelona for millions of people, performing one of the most representative songs of Catalonia, The Song of Birds that Pablo Casals also played, in response to the invasion.

JVS: I try to imagine how to reach people in the United States, where most people remain ignorant of the beauties of classical music, with the exquisite and refined music that you do. In Europe in general, and Spain in particular, are people increasingly ignorant about the beauties of classical music?

JS: There's always a certain part of the youth population that, in reaction to their parents and the older, established culture, doesn't care much for this music. But actually, at our concerts, young people form an important part of the audience.

Many years ago, when we did the music for the movie, Tous les matins du monde, we made the Top 10 along with Michael Jackson and Queen. We remained there for months. In the same weekend that Madonna presented her album about music and sex, we were selling more discs than she was. When you have the possibility of reaching people with something new and interesting, I think people will respond.

The difficulty is how to reach these people. They are ready to discover things. But as space for this music becomes smaller and smaller, there are less possibilities to reach the,. There's no space in record stores, radio, and television, so people can't learn about it. The society that doesn't offer possibilities to its young people is in a very bad way.

We were in Mexico last week, where the situation is even more terrible than in the U.S. in some ways. Yet we did several concerts, including Spanish music at the time of Cervantes, in the big hall at the National University that holds 2000 people. It was full, full of young people as well as people from all the levels of society.

After the concert, we spent 90 minutes signing programs and CDs. The people were young, old, rich, poor, students, professors, and immigrants. It's because the price of the concert was so accessible.

Also, two or three different radio stations promoted the concert. We go there every few years, so people know us. In the states, different radio stations do a very good job. This is very important.

JVS: But classical stations are dying in the U.S. We're being ghettoized.

JS: Nonetheless, when we performed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City last spring, all three concerts were sold out. The New York Times and New Yorker wrote big reviews. In Europe, it's very rare to get such big reviews. Here there was a real interest. We played music of Monteverdi and Cervantes in the great hall of the Dendur Temple. It was beautiful, with lots people.

We've also performed our family program in the Medieval Court. We also performed a program of French music with Le Concert National there. Every time, we had an interesting, very sensitive audience with lots of people. People come because they want to hear the music, not because they're seeking social prestige.

JVS: Let's talk about the concert you just performed in the Bay Area. I know there are lots of opportunities for improvisation in baroque music, but I have no idea how much of what you play is improvised as opposed to being written out.

JS: The orchestral concert we just performed was all from written music; there was no improvisation. In the Fandango encore by Boccherini, I played my own version for cellos and two pianos, adapted from his original version for orchestral quintet. Boccherini also wrote a version for guitar and strings, but we didn't work from that. Where the piece calls for castanets, we used a variation of the instrument that doesn't require someone to master castanet technique; it produces the same rhythm, but not the same sound.

Le Concert de Nations has just recorded a version of the whole original quintet with very beautiful castanet players from Spain [released May 2006].

JVS: Please explain the differences between your three groups.

JS: Hesperion XXI, which was called Hesperion XX in the last century, performs music for mixed consort of viols from the medieval, Renaissance, and baroque periods. Sometimes there's one solo singer, sometimes two, other times a flute or oud.

La Capella Ral is a vocal ensemble that performs Monteverdi madrigals or villancicos or a mass or R\requiem. It includes an orchestra that can perform in a small group such as in music by Couperin, as well as a full orchestra for Boccherini or the Musica Notturna by Mozart, which we've recorded as our contribution to the Mozart year [also released May 2006].

In the new recording of La Folia [released fall 2005], only the melody is written out; the rest is improvisation. All variations are improvisations. We also did a lot of improvisation in our last recording from the family, Du temps & de l'instant.

JVS: Yes. I love the disc and have reviewed it.

JS: Many of the pieces are improvisations, including all the pieces my son sings. Each of his performances is different. In general, we tend to conserve the parts of the improvisation that work well, and then add more to it. It's like life. When you're in a good frame of mind, you remember the good things, and you quickly forget the bad things.

JVS: I loved when you involved the audience in clapping to the music.

JS: Audiences are often very passive; they simply look, listen, and enjoy. But some pieces, such as Rameau's contradances, were originally composed as popular music. Much of the music that people played in 19th century salons in America is similar in rhythm. It's music that began as popular dance. and is used to make a certain point. Having people join in is very natural.

JVS: You seemed to take a real delight in the musicianship of Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. I've always thought of you as very serious; it was lovely to see you smiling and directing us.

JS: Yes, I think this is part of the necessary adaptation to the music. It brings the music closer to the audience without detracting from it. I think music in the first line is pleasure.

JVS: Do you often introduce pieces to people?

JS: Yes, in all my concerts, especially when I play alone. I explain what I'm playing, and talk about the instruments. This brings people much closer to the music. It gives them more pleasure if they know why you pluck with the fingers, why you percuss with the wood, andwhy the music is written as it is.

I have done this from the very beginning because the viola da gamba was so special. For people to understand it, I had to explain why you play with the bow in such strange position. I remember one concert where a woman in the audience thought I had a malformity that forced me to hold the bow in such a strange position. You have to understand that these instruments were originally played on the knees, with the bow held as I do.

JVS: In the Musica Notturna by Boccherini, the instructions were to play the cello on the lap as though you were strumming a guitar.

JS: Exactly. The instructions were to hold the cello as though it were a guitar and play it with the nails to make a sharp arpeggio. The cellists of Philharmonia Baroque didn't hold their instruments this way because they would have had to change their positions quickly, but the violinists did.

JVS: I read that Arriaga, whose music you performed, was dubbed the Spanish Mozart.

JS: This is a bit of mythology. He was a great composer. If he had lived more than 20 years, he might have become a composer as great as Mendelssohn. He's only compared to Mozart because Mozart died very young, and Arriaga died much younger.

JVS: I wasn't as struck by his greatness. I liked many things, but it didn't hold my interest as much as the other music you played.

JS: Probably it's music you have to know a little more before you can fully take it in. I think there are things you can understand from the first moment. But other things you have to learn to enter into the music. The phenomenon is probably similar to what happens the first time you listen to a Mendelssohn symphony, in comparison to a Beethoven symphony.

Arriaga also wrote and studied in Paris during a moment of transition. I have worked on his music many years and recorded all his symphonies and overtures. The more I play the music, the more I like it.

JVS: This raises a valid question about how critics evaluate pieces they've heard for the first time. We just had the premiere of Doctor Atomic and I read . . .

JS:  . . . very different things.

JVS: Oh yes. What is your reaction when a critic absolutely trashes a full-length work like Doctor Atomic based one hearing? I know one critic who opined that, save for one aria, the writing is absolutely atrocious for the voice? History is filled with critics who have condemned Mahler and Brahms and their mother. How do you react to their absolute judgments?

JS: It's very hard sometimes to understand the situation. As a performer, we work with the music a long time. In a concert, it's one instant in our continuing relationship, but for the critic, it's the only instant. This makes for a difficult balance between the instant of the concert and the evolution of the interpretation.

Music is always something very subjective. It's equally subjective for the interpretation and the way you listen to it. In an audience of 2000, there are 2000 ways to understand the music, and 2000 ways to feel the music. Everybody reacts with their own sensibility to the situation of the moment.

JVS: If people were only willing to say 'my reaction is' as opposed to, 'this writing is terrible.' It would require a certain amount of humility.

JS: Exactly. This is the point. There is not one truth. There are many truths, and many possibilities.

JVS: If I were going to review a world premiere, I would try to attend a dress rehearsal so that I had greater familiarity with the music.

JS: Of course. The music is the music, and papers and critics are another thing. I think the biggest responsibility a critic has is to provide a minimum of objectivity about the real situation of the performers and the music. The impression of the audience is as important as the impression on the readers, because the music is to be listened to.

JVS: And the audience gave you a prolonged ovation.

You were a guest conductor. How many rehearsals did you have?

JS: The first concert was on Friday, and we started rehearsal Wednesday. I didn't distribute copies of scores that I had already marked up, but some of the parts included the composer's original bowing indications. Otherwise, we worked it all out during rehearsals.

We worked hard, and at the last moment I asked for more time. I was actually ready to rehearse on Tuesday, but it wasn't possible because of organizational considerations. I prefer to rehearse more. The PBO musicians are very disciplined and very accustomed to working hard together. People pick up things very quickly.

JVS: How much of what you wanted to realize in those performances did you actually achieve? Were you happy with what you heard?

JS: It's difficult to say, because the ideal situation is impossible to achieve. Some of the things you think are possible when you listen to the score in your head are not possible to achieve in reality.

I think in the concert we realized a good amount of what I wanted to achieve. We had exceptional flexibility in interpretation and phrasing, which is very difficult to achieve with a large orchestra. It's much easier to do this in chamber music. That's why I wanted more time; the freedom to create something special needs time.

I think a conductor also has to know how to breathe. With instrumental music, you need to take breaks, much as you do with a singer. The phrasing needs to breathe. Music demands this.

JVS: I always think of your music in terms of air, space, refinement and elegance. To what extent do your interpretations reflect how the music was actually performed during the period in which it was written? How much do we know about original performance practice?

JS: It is very different depending upon the period. The more ancient the music, the less we know about concrete things.

Of music from the time of Couperin, Rameau, Lully, Marais we know a lot. We know a lot about how to do ornaments, phrasing, technique, bowing, articulation, and tempo the technical things. There's strong documentation from the period.

We know that the 'bowing on the air' creates a different kind of music. The way to produce vibrato is also known. But with older music, we know the style of the instruments from paintings, but we don't know how they sounded or how they should be played.

There is an exception. We do know that many of the instruments used in the 12th-14th centuries are still used in the Arabic countries. The oud, several flutes, percussion, and other instruments currently in use in the Mediterranean date back to medieval times. In such cases, we learn how these monadic style instruments that play only the melody are played today, study the notation, and then improvise from it.

Medieval music is written without harmonies. Every instrumentalist either improvises or ornaments the music in a certain way. This changed in the Renaissance.

JVS: When we listen to Hildegaard von Bingen, how much do we know about how the music originally sounded?

JS: We know the melody and we know the ornamentation.

JVS: In the first decade of early music performance and recording, tempi tended to be very fast and strict. The give and take - the rubato - that distinguished earlier, historically uninformed renditions and recordings was absent. To what extent did the original interpreters of early music employ rubato, vibrato, tempo changes, dynamics, etc?

JS: There was a lot of freedom in the baroque era. What I think you're describing was the reaction in the initial period of authentic instrument performance against taking extreme liberties. But nothing is freer than the baroque interpretation of the time, because the musicians were all great improvisers and soloists and had sufficient rehearsal time to work things out.

Even Beethoven, who is so strict with the tempo, and included metronome markings in his scores, expected liberties. Take his song "Aus dem Suden." He indicates metronome markings at the beginning of the piece, but then, in the middle of the piece, asks the performers to change tempo. We must recall the great phrase from Stravinsky, whosaid, "Don't interpret my music; just play it." I think you have to understand what this means.

A really good performer lets the music flow freely. They let it sing and breathe, they let it live. Interpretation is where you try to manipulate, and make your ideas stronger than the music.

Compare the Bach cello suites from Casals with the cello suites from Rostropovich. Casals is playing with gut strings. He had practiced the music for ten years before playing it in concert. Casals plays with the freedom of a romantic player, but his vantage point is the essential elements of Bach's music. His music is just free enough, but not as extremely free as Rostropovich's, which is really as far removed from Bach as from Casals.

JVS: When you first met your wife Montserrat Figueras, were you first attracted by her beauty or by her singing? She's such a beautiful woman, it would be hard not to be attracted to her. She's gorgeous. But she also has an extraordinary, unforgettable instrument. I remember when she stood in the balcony of Berkeley's First Congregational Church, and began a concert by singing behind and above us at the front of the orchestra. The way her voice cut through the air was amazing.

Did you initially meet through music?

JS; We met in cello class, when we were both studying cello around the age of 22 or 23. My teacher was not very comfortable with the way I played Bach. Montserrat would remain behind, listening from the hallway. When I'd leave the class, she'd always say to me very softly, "Don't worry. You play very well." [laughing] This was a fantastic feeling that lasted the whole day.

I decided at a certain point, after finishing my studies and playing a lot of music written for the viola da gamba on the cello, to explore the viola da gamba. After completing a summer course, I decided to look at it.

I arrived in Barcelona, and received a call from Ars Musica, a group that played ancient music in which Montserrat sang. They told me that they had a viola da gamba for me if I wanted to play it [chuckling]. I was interested and said yes.

As it turned out, the director of the group called after he had asked Montserrat if she knew a young musician interested in playing viola da gamba. She replied, "I don't know, but Jordi Savall is a good cellist. Maybe he would like to play it." The group had planned some recordings with Victoria de los Angeles for the following year and needed a viola da gambist. When the recordings were eventually made, both me and Montserrat performed with the group.

I first heard Montserrat sing when I was in the group. She was so great. She has a very natural voice, so special, and so sensitive. This was the beginning of everything [chuckling].

JVS: You're returning to Berkeley in March, 2006. What will you do?

JS: We have two programs prepared, but I don't know which one we'll do. One is about the music from Spain that traveled from the Old World to the New World, and the music from the New World that traveled back to Spain. We'll play a chaconne by Juan Aranjez from 1620 =-- he's on our record of Villancicos Criollos. Cervantes said about the chaccone that it was Indian mulatto music that originated with America's Indians. Cervantes knew that the chacconna was the mix of Spanish and American Indian cultures.

This is very interesting. Many new dances - the chaccona, the seguidilla, and all these new dance forms - appeared in Spain in the second half of the 16th century, 50 years after Columbus discovered the New World and brought the first Indians back to Barcelona. We don't know how they appeared. Maybe some of them are a result of the mixture of cultures. Some of the dances may have come from Africa, because the Negro slaves did all the heavy work in the boats. These were perhaps the first Negro spirituals. At the end of the 16th century, many villancicos were called villancicos de Negro because they were first sung by African people.

The Canary Islands were one of the principal places ships stopped as they traveled from Africa to Spain and the New World. In the churches of the Canary Islands there are Villancicos de Linguas, Language Villancicos, that are written in all languages, including African, Spanish, and Polish, that the sailors spoke. This represents a new development in the history of music.

Another program we may do is comprised of the music by Don Quichotte that was described in the book, Don Quixote de la Mancha. By the start of 2006, we'll issue a book and two records that contain all this music.

JVS: Thank you for devoting so much time to this interview. It was a joy to speak with you.

- Jason Victor Serinus -

Copyright 2006 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity

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