Review: The remarkable artistry of Jordi Savall

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Jordi Savall
Jordi Savall
Mandel Hall was the site of a remarkable display of artistry on Friday night when University of Chicago Presents hosted the early music artist Jordi Savall. The audience was enraptured by his performance of a wide range of Celtic folk songs that Savall had collected under the title, “Man and Nature: Musical Humors and Landscapes in the English, Irish, Scottish and American traditions.”

Savall divided the concert, part of the Howard Mayer Brown International Early Music Series, into seven sets and for each set he played either the treble viol or the bass viol. For a few of the sets he performed alone, but for most he was joined by Frank McGuire on the bodhrán, a traditional Celtic frame drum.

The pieces were in various forms, including hornpipes, reels, jigs, rants and laments. They were popular works from the 17th and 18th centuries passed on through the years via what Savall describes (in his fascinating program notes) as the oral tradition, as well as works attributed to specific composers such as Tobias Hume and John Playford. In the opening Caledonian set, Savall established beautiful phrasing, which continued throughout the performance, featuring elasticity and lyricism.

Both Savall and McGuire played with intensity, engaging sound and vitality. As a duo, they had easy rapport and executed tempo changes as if they possessed a single mind.

Savall even inserted some humor into the program, with a piece that invoked military maneuvers that found him engaging in a wide array of unusual bow uses. He bounced it against the strings, as well as tapped and hit them, and he created interesting sounds, including a tantalizing raspiness. The music was performed to perfection, so that you almost hear the troops marching and volley of gunfire.

Savall and McGuire were splendid storytellers throughout, with each piece creating a new tale with a narrative almost as clear as if there had been words.

Savall also spoke from the stage, discussing the different tunings he used for his viols. For example, the bagpipe tuning, he said, allowed him to create a pleasing drone sound.

The evening ended with an encore and an enthusiastic standing ovation for the two marvelous performers.

*****

The North American branch of the Elgar Society held their annual meeting in Chicago this year and to celebrate, Kim Diehnelt, the organizer of Sounds of the South Loop, put together a concert of Elgar’s music. This free concert took place on Friday at the Second Presbyterian Church. Diehnelt created two new arrangements of Elgar’s music that had their world premieres that afternoon.

The highlight of the concert was Diehnelt’s arrangement of Elgar’s “Sea Pictures” for mezzo-soprano and string quartet. Replacing a sprawling orchestra with just four string players is a big task and the arrangement is still a work in progress, with only three of the five songs completed. But the arrangement is true to the original and engaging in its own right. When Diehnelt completes her work, this will make the “Sea Pictures” available for singers unable to perform with an orchestra and bring the work to a wider audience.

Mezzo-soprano Karen Archbold and the Grant Street String Quartet (Jennifer Leckie and Caroline Slack, violins; Becca Wilcox, viola; and Timothy Archbold, cello) introduced this new arrangement. “Sea Slumber Song” displayed Karen Archbold’s sweetness of voice and command of melody, although her diction was a bit off. “In Haven” brought out stylish playing from the quartet, particularly cellist Archbold (the husband of the soloist). “Where Coral Lie” could have used a little more muscle from the strings, but they did capture the mood of the music. I look forward to the completion of this arrangement.

Diehnelt also arranged the “Adagio” movement of Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 in A flat Major for string quartet. Even with only four voices, she was able to maintain a splendid multi-layered texture that captures the tension and the grace of the music. The Grant Street players gave a thoughtful, even ruminative performance.
The quartet had warm sound for Elgar’s Chanson de Matin (arranged by W.H. Reed) and an amiable, light approach. There was laid-back lyricism for Elgar’s “Salut D’amour” (arranged by Donald Fasor) and a charming gentleness.
The only non-Elgar work on the program was “Solveig’s Lied” from Grieg’s Peer Gynt. Archbold sang with simplicity with had strong support from the quartet.