Les Voix Humaines of the ‘Sun King’s viols


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A concert was given by Spanish musician Jordi Savall on 23 September 2016, within Varna Summer International Music Festival celebrating its 90th anniversary. Savall’s second concert in Bulgaria, following his participation in the March Music Days, Ruse 2015, was, predictably, an outstanding event. He is likewise welcomed across the world with his over 140 concerts annually and more than 200 recordings, winning numerous professional distinctions and receiving honorary degrees and above all, the Léonie Sonning Music Prize, Denmark’s ‘Nobel’ for music.

Jordi Savall is celebrated as a remarkable musician, a top performer, an internationally recognized interpreter of not only Baroque repertoire but also of “world music” in joint projects with Arab, Israeli, Turkish, Greek, Armenian, Afghan, Mexican, North American and Bulgarian (shepherd’s pipe player Nedialko Nedialkov) performers. Due to his repertories of Jewish, Christian and Muslim music, opening up a ‘dialogue of souls’ between the East and the West, Savall served as an artist-in-residence with three concerts at the Easter Festival in Lucerne 2016.


Jordi Savall and his ensemble are rehearsing before the concert they gave on 23rd September 2016 in Varna.  Photo by Ivan K. Yanakiev

Jordi Savall arrived in Varna with three musicians: Philippe Pierlot playing on his Thomas Allred bass viol (London, 1625); Rolf Lislevand (theorbo & guitar) and Michael Beringer (harpsichord). Savall himself played on a seven-string bass viol by Barak Normann, (London, 1697).

The chamber ensemble they formed was a popular and working format of chamber music making during the Baroque period: a larger group of basso continuo (bass viol, harpsichord and theorbo/ guitar) allowing one or two soloists (one or two gambas). This group allows for presenting the three major elements of the ensemble texture – the bass, melody and harmony lines – in pliant combinations of instruments with each of them being even able to take all the three parts all alone. Soloists Savall and Pierlot skilfully made use of the baroque practice to write only two parts – the solo and the accompanying basso – alternating their role on more than one occasion during the concert.

The performers displayed not just their superb musicianship, but also a fine aesthetical precision as regards the stylistic and genre specifics of baroque repertories. Jordi Savall has built the programme by distributing the soloist’s role among all the performers. Philippe Pierlot (bass viol), for instance, was skilfully accompanied by Savall in La Rêveuse and L’Arabesque. The pieces by Jean-Baptiste Lully, Marin Marais (Prelude, Muzettes, La Sautillante), De Sainte-Colombe (Concert a deux violes égales: Tombeau les Regrets) in the first part contrasted with the meditative nature of the music in the second part by bringing to the fore the specific sound of the gambas. Savall’s solo part in Prélude en re by Le Sieur de Machy allowed the player to share with the audience the finest nuances of the instrument’s specific colour.

In the programme’s centrepiece, Les Voix Humaines, Savall himself succeeded through his instrument in fully materialising the timbres and the breath of the four main human vocal voices. The concert closed with variations on the emblematic of the Western European early music chaconne La Folia d’España in Marin Marais’s transcription Couplets de Folies (d’Espagne). Here the performers concentrated the quintessence of their instrumental skills and aesthetics to take the audience to a dazzling and colourful finale of the concert given by their chamber ensemble. As an encore, the musicians improvised a chaconne on four chords, forming a simple harmonic cadence of the three major harmonic functions (T-S-D-T). The musicians showed a refined sense of proportion doing their improvisation as a ternary form, comparing the major mode at the beginning and the end to the minor mode in the inner part.

Prior to the concert, maestro Jordi Savall held a brief press conference answering questions also asked by Ivan Yanakiev:


Ivan K. Yanakiev is interviewing Jordi Savall minutes before his concert on 23rd. September 2016 in Varna 
Photo by Miriana Kalushkova

Y.: What is your personal attitude as a player towards the lower concert pitch that you use in your performances? Is it only historical or you have something else in mind?

S.:Well, my instrument, for example, if I will play in the high pitch, will have short life, because the tension will be too much. Some years ago, I had to play in the higher pitch and after three month the instrument was not sounding at all. I brought the viola to the violin maker and he said “Your instrument is tired. It need a break because you had make too much tension.” The wood – it’s flexible, you know…, and when you do much tension the wood becomes stiff and cannot make a vibration. And then it’s not sounding at all. The pitch – it’s important because this gives us also the colour. And the colour from the Renaissance – the pitch of the Renaissance is higher; the pitch of the Baroque is lower and the French Baroque is much lower (Marin Marais and the composers included in the programme, I.Y.). And this makes like a painting – the colours of Rubens is different of Caravaggio, Caravaggio is different from Velázquez and every style has his own colour and different ways to submit beauty and emotion.

Y.: Would you agree that we have to consider the concert pitch and the temperament as valid means of expression as dynamics and melody?

S.:You know, the temperament – it’s so important, because the temperament makes the whole tension in the modulation. And if you play in D major or in C major and everything sound very good. But when you make the modulations in the nontempered pitch every modulation far from the original – it’s not so perfect and then makes the tension. This makes the sense when do modulation. When you make a modulation with tempered instruments (i.e. equal-tempered instrument, I.Y.), it sounds as good in b minor as in c minor –there is not a difference. And I think it is an interesting thing when we play classical music – Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn with original instruments when we feel this – a traverse, when he plays in D major, it sounds beautiful, when he plays in E flat sounds much stronger, much darker, and it is part of the beauty of this instruments.

These words of Savall about the concert pitch, temperament and the tension of the strings of the instrument he plays on––a masterpiece crafted by Barak Norman, the late seventeenth-century London’s leading violinmaker – give reasons for commenting on the choices of contemporary concert pitch. Given the response of inanimate matter to the tension that has to be exerted on it to stretch the strings enough, undoubtedly the same holds true of the animate beings. The current high concert pitch influences men as well as a whole, as their ‘design’, unlike that of contemporary stringed instruments, has not undergone changes ever since their creation. The issue remains open and topical as musicians themselves would not globally adhere to ISO 16:1975, the internationally agreed standard for the tuning of musical instruments, in which the note a1 has a frequency of 440 Hz, but would rather opt for sounds consistent with their own personal interpretational intentions.

What Jordi Savall presented to the Bulgarian audience in one of the final concerts within Varna Summer International Music Festival, was a conveyance into another state of mind through a sound that has been inherent in the everyday life of the French court under the ‘Sun King’. The pieces by Marais, De Sainte-Colombe and Lully were a key to a gateway, which Maestro Jordi Savall and his musicians opened for the golden breath of the gambas’ ‘voix humaine’ to pour down into the concert hall.


Savall’s viol by Barak Normann, (London, 1697) Photo by Miriana Kalushkova

Les Voix Humaines of the ‘Sun King’s viols

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