Esprit des Balkans (Balkan Spirit)

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Folk music
LABELS: Alia Vox
ALBUM TITLE: Balkan Spirit
WORKS: Serbian, Greek, Turkish, Romanian, Bulgarian, Sephardic & Gypsy music
PERFORMER: Mihailo Blam, Gyula Csik, Vilmos Csikos, Valeri Dimchev, Bora Dugic, Tcha Limberger, Slobodan Prodanovic, Dimitri Psonis, Moslem Rahal, Zacharias Spyridakis; Hespèrion XXI/Jordi Savall


Jordi Savall’s crusade for cultural peace in the strife-torn countries bordering the eastern Mediterranean continues, even after the tragic death of his wife and muse Montserrat Figueras who was so associated with this cause. This new CD – released with a chunky little book in 13 languages – brings the focus onto a musical realm which has long hovered on the fringe of his explorations. Prompted by a concert he gave in Sarajevo last year, he is now embarking on a project devoted to the music of the Gypsy and Sephardic diasporas in the Balkans.

Savall observes in his booklet essay that the Balkans can just as legitimately be seen as the cradle of European civilisation as they can the powder keg for war. Against the strife they have witnessed – from the Christian defeat by the Ottomans in the 16th century to the terrible inter-ethnic massacres of the 1990s – should be set the fact that the Ottomans traditionally adopted a very civilised live-and-let-live attitude to their non-Muslim subjects: all they had to do for a quiet life was accept Muslim rule and pay their taxes. The Balkans, he says, are that ‘other Europe’ with which Western Europeans must now get to grips.

This is an entrancing CD, with dances, laments, and feast-day songs linked in a slow-quick-slow structure. Perhaps as an implicit tribute to Montserrat Figueras, there are no vocal numbers, but the musicians Savall has assembled from the relevant countries display a wonderful range of virtuosity. It’s a shame the strictly musicological information in the book is so inadequate, because much could have been made of the variety of guises in which the flute and the fiddle make their appearance. In the hands of Bora Drugi´c, the humble frula – Serbia’s answer to the recorder – can get the joint jumping in a rollicking dance, or call up wistful nostalgia; on the longer, end-blown kaval, Nedyalko Nedyalkov can evoke the immense sadness of a Gypsy lament, or weave dainty patterns in a Cretan circle dance. Peyo Peev’s nimbleness with the bowed Bulgarian gadulka is matched by Derya Türkan’s on the kemanche spike-fiddle. Gyula Csík’s cimbalom finds its Middle-Eastern answer in the plucked kanun. And as one might expect, the violin proper surfaces all over the place. At the end Savall plays a newly-composed elegy on the soprano viola da gamba for a woman who has left the village to get married in the big city: there could be no more moving testament to the wife who has gone on ahead.


Michael Church