Classical and Opera Reviews


2 May 2011

Entitled Mare Nostrum (the Roman name for the Mediterranean Sea), this concert by Savall and his early music outfit Hesprion XXI was more than just a crude attempt to bridge the musical traditions of east and west. Rather, it demonstrated what little differences there were in courtly and popular music around the Mediterranean basin between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Take for instance Soleta s jo ac (I am so alone), an achingly beautiful ballad for soprano. Originating from Valencia in Spain some time in the sixteenth century, its sentiments, harmonies and instrumentation are little different from Nani, Nani, a bitter-sweet lullaby from Smyrna (now Izmir) on Turkeys southern coast. Indeed, modern geography and political boundaries have little relevance in this music, as do composers identities: most of the pieces in the concert came from oral/aural traditions and their authorships remain anonymous.

Although the music in Savalls programme stretched across several centuries and had their origins in places as far apart as modern-day Italy and Afghanistan, the Sephardic tradition provided the most obvious link with many of the pieces. Ladino-speaking Jewish traders and craftsmen were to be found across the Mediterranean littoral during the middle ages and beyond particularly after their expulsion from Spain in the late fifteenth century, when many found a welcome refuge in the lands of the rapidly expanding Ottoman empire. Unsurprisingly, the music they adopted and adapted accounted for almost half the works in the programme.

Savall and the two other members of Hesprion XXI (his wife, the soprano Montserrat Figueras, and Greek instrumentalist Dimitri Psonis) played a bewildering array of instruments, most of which were copies of original models now mainly housed in museums. While Savall worked his way through three different types of viol, Psonis flitted between percussion (drums and tambourine), guitar prototypes (including the round-backed guitarra moresca), and the dulcimer-like santur. As well as singing, Figueras accompanied herself on the zither, and joined in with the other two for several instrumental interludes. As one would expect, the playing of all three was impeccable, although the frequent tunings-up did sometimes disrupt the flow of the concert. But it was Figuerass voice that really captured the imagination. Plaintive, coaxing and joyful by turns, it more than anything recalled a lost moment in our musical world.

Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at

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