You have to pick your way through The Celtic Viol with care. Jordi Savall’s precisely delineated approach to traditional Scottish and Irish tunes, and airs and dances by O’Carolan, Simon Fraser, Niel Gow, James Macpherson and William Marshall, sits trembling at the centre of a web-like latticework of so many ideas, attitudes and assumptions, both historical and modern. From first note to last the recital poses question after question about notions of ownership, authenticity and, in terms of the two traditions it interweaves together with a delicacy that is altogether becoming, legitimacy.
A musician-scholar and master of the baroque viola da gamba, Savall sorted through 10,000 (largely nineteenth-century) manuscripts to select the twenty-nine pieces on offer here. He employs a treble viol – an instrument older than much of the material and not equipped with the technical resources the music demands; this obliges him to switch between five- and six-string instruments. The choice presents a number of challenges, to himself and to listeners with declared allegiances to classical and traditional idioms. That the result is neither fish nor fowl and that it gently aggravates as much as it sweetly pleases is really neither here nor there.
Underpinning the careful laying out of the performances is the clear intention to pay tribute rather than to annexe. These are typically challenging – if also a touch too deferentially understated – accounts from a musician for whom interpretation is the product of meticulous investigation and analysis that embraces political, cross-cultural and music history alike.
What persuades about Savall’s interpretation is the lugubriously plangent tone of the viol, more so, in fact, than his obvious reverence for the music, easily latching on to its mournful, bittersweet undertow. And the dark mahogany, antique husk of its voice produces some surprising echoes – courtly Renaissance pavanes, the doleful twang of Appalachia, meditative East European laments and, throughout, the plaintive elegies of Savall’s own Catalan heritage.
Harpist Andrew Lawrence-King accompanies on several tracks, adding lighter gossamer textures to lace and line the viol’s twilit, rough-edged timbre. The two play impeccably together, but some will stumble over Savall’s (necessarily) heavier, less free way with his bow as it dilutes and drains the music of some of its robust energy – the markedly slow and occasionally ponderous pace of the jigs and reels is clear evidence of that.
Savall’s is an obviously considered and sincerely felt commentary on this ancient and modern music, the prevailing mood meditative and quietly beautiful. Whether that mood is altogether apt is another matter altogether, but the recording, in the Monastery of Sant Pere de Rodes in Catalonia, is suitably intimate with subtly added reverb lending fireside warmth to the sound. Can a second volume be far away?
Published on 1 October 2009
Michael Quinn is a freelance music and theatre journalist based in Co. Down.