We talk to the acclaimed viola da gamba player
On Friday (18 May), the acclaimed viola da gamba player and director Jordi Savall will be bringing his Le Concert des Nations ensemble to St John’s, Smith Square for a programme of Lully, Corelli, Biber, Geminiani, Handel, Avison and Boccherini. The multi-national feel of the concert, which forms part of the 2012 Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music, is no mistake, says Savall…
Your programme on Friday mixes Italians with a couple of Germans, an Englishman and a naturalised Frenchman. How did you choose it?
Well, the idea was to do a programme only with strings which would reflect the variety of the styles of this period – Italian, French, German, English – and also the multinational influences as musicians travelled around Europe and took inspiration from music from other cultures. For instance, we have Lully, an Italian musician who practically invented the French style of music; or there’s Geminiani, who is a very typical example of a composer who is Italian but has spent most of his life in another country, specifically England; and then in the second half we have Avison, who is something of an anomaly as he is an English composer whose music is based on that of another (Scarlatti), plus Boccherini, an Italian composer who lived in Spain.
While Boccherini absorbed Spanish influences, he wasn’t convinced his music would travel well outside Spain, was he?
Boccherini composed his Quintet in C major using examples of popular music from the streets of Madrid. At first Boccherini refused to allow his editor in Paris to publish this work, saying ‘No, no, I don’t think this is good for European musicians, they will not understand this at all’. This is because he says in the music ‘play this with this sound: senza grazia (without grace)’. He was thinking that only musicians from there could understand this style of popular music, but finally he allowed it to be published and it became one of his most well-known pieces.
Also in the programme is Biber’s eccentric Battalia, complete with instruments playing in eight separate keys and sound effects using paper. What would the audience of Biber’s day have made of it?
Well I don’t have any idea how they reacted, but in those times people were always confronted with new music. In fact, they only heard new music. Can we imagine, today, musical life in which only modern music is played? So I think the people in Biber’s time were much more open to experiences than we are today – they were hoping to be surprised by the music, and hated listening to something they have already heard. In that context, the Battalia was for them a great pleasure.
You are famous for discovering and performing unknown repertoire from all over the world. How do you have time to both research so much and then perform it?
I divide all my time reading, studying and practising. Even when I am travelling, I travel always with some books and music! I like reading and thinking of new projects – it is part of my temperament. For example, I finished yesterday a recording of Armenian music, which is my discovery from this last year – I discovered beautiful repertoire from the Armenian classical tradition, and the music was not at all known in Europe. Some people spend time going to the mountains or going to the sea, but for me my pleasure is to read and to learn about history and to discover small treasures, because you cannot imagine how many are forgotten. And the pleasure as a musician that you have when you discover a small treasure is something unbelievable.
‘European Union’, Jordi Savall’s concert with Le Concert des Nations takes place at St John’s Smith Square on Friday, 18 May at 7.30pm, as part of the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music. It will be broadcast live on Radio 3.