Jordi Savall channels the English Renaissance at Mandel Hall

Sat Mar 05, 2016 at 10:52 am

By Tim Sawyier

Jordi Savall performed Friday night at Mandel Hall.
Jordi Savall performed Friday night at Mandel Hall.

 “A violist played a solo recital…” sounds like the beginning of a musicians’ joke.

However, when “violist” refers not to any alto member of the string section but to the consummate period viol specialist Jordi Savall, that phrase describes an engaging musical evening. University of Chicago Presents hosted such an event Friday night at Mandel Hall, where Savall was joined by Frank McGuire on bodhrán for an exploration of English and Celtic folk music dating mostly from the high Renaissance.

“Man & Nature: Musical Humors and Landscapes in the English, Irish, Scottish and American Traditions,” as the concert was laboriously subtitled, examined a largely and lamentably lost repertoire. Savall performed over thirty selections that he arranged into cogent sets of between four and six numbers, alternating between two period instruments—a 1750 six-string treble viol and a seven-string bass viol from 1697.

The Mandel Hall stage lighting was essentially blacked out for the entire concert, with Savall’s low music stand illuminated only by an Art Deco floor lamp on the stage. McGuire did not need any sheet music for the ostinatos he contributed on the bodhrán, a traditional hand-held Celtric frame drum. In addition to his accompanying duties, McGuire added some sartorial flair to proceedings, performing in a kilt.

Savall launched the evening with The Caledonia Set, starting with an ethereally rhapsodic treble viol solo in the traditional Irish “The Humors of Scariff.” When McGuire joined he produced a dizzying array of sonorities from his deceptively simple-seeming instrument, as he did throughout the program.

Savall’s playing was abundantly refined, delicate, and sensitive. He imbued melancholy melodies with a reflective quality, and more narrative selections managed to sound at once both poised and improvisatory. The concert’s ubiquitous jigs and reels had a fitting joie de vivre, no more so than in the pair’s encore set from the Manchester Gamba Book.

One also left the performance more educated about period instrumental practice. Savall described the different tunings he employed on the bass viol, which was most apparent in The Lord Moria’s Set where “the bagpipes tuning” allowed for compelling drone effects. Another unexpected feature was Savall’s use of techniques one typically associates with Romantic and twentieth-century writing, such as left-hand pizzicato and playing con legno (with the wood of the bow), which provided some welcome variety.

Indeed the program suffered most from the uniformity of its content. Much of the expression in these pieces is derived through repetition, which might be why one encounters them as background music at a tavern or in The Lord of the Rings film soundtrack, rather than as concert music requiring undivided attention.

Savall assembled the suites largely on the basis of key, and none of their movements really modulated, which exacerbated their repetitiveness.

Finally, period string instruments by their nature have a limited dynamic range, and would have been better suited to a smaller venue where the subtleties of Savall’s playing would have been more apparent. Such a setting, however, could not have accommodated the large audience that packed Mandel Hall to hear the celebrated viol virtuoso.

Posted in Performances

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