It was a sound that few who heard it are likely to forget. In January, the church of Santa María del Mar in Barcelona was packed for the memorial concert of the singer Montserrat Figueras, who died last year aged 69. At the front, seated at the viola da gamba, Figueras’s husband Jordi Savall waited motionless as Armenian duduks launched into an opening lament.
Then, from a balcony lit by three candles, came the voice of Figueras herself – “smoky, penetrating, flatly expressive”, as the music writer Alex Ross has described it. What we were hearing was one of her recordings of the Chant of the Sybil, a medieval Catalan text that she particularly loved. It was a charged moment, tinged with the realisation that recordings might endure, but the chance to hear this voice in performance had gone for ever.
When I meet Jordi Savall a few months later, he is in the middle of producing a new disc that will tell the story, in music, of the humanist thinker Erasmus. The recording session in a chapel had finished at six that morning, Savall having returned only two days ago from an exhausting tour of Mexico and China with Hespèrion XXI, the ensemble he co-founded with Figueras in 1974.
Six months after his wife’s death, and having turned 70 last year, Savall won’t, or can’t, slow down. Next week he brings his baroque orchestra, Le Concert des Nations, to St John’s, Smith Square, in London for a programme that will include Lully and Biber. At the end of the month he is due in Copenhagen to receive Denmark’s highest music accolade, the Léonie Sonning prize.
“Montserrat was my muse, my lover, the mother of our children, my adviser,” Savall tells me. We are sitting on the patio of his house near Barcelona, a scent of orange blossom drifting from the garden that Figueras herself landscaped. “The price I’m paying for that experience is this sadness, but only if you don’t love, you don’t suffer.”
After a 44-year marriage that was also a groundbreaking musical partnership, his grief inevitably has its public side. “I’ve been inundated with messages from people who were touched by her music … At every concert, I’m reminded of her memory, which can be beautiful but also painful.”
Grief aside, Savall has also had to handle her loss in his role as impresario. Much was made in the obituaries of Figueras’s singular voice, and Savall confirms he will not attempt to re-perform works in which she was the only singer: “No female singer has that flexibility. Her voice is irreplaceable.”
It was in Barcelona in the 1960s that Savall and Figueras met, both young performers exploring their interest in period instruments. After marrying in 1967, they founded Hespèrion XX (as it was first named) to bring medieval, Renaissance and Baroque music to wider audiences. Major commercial success came with the soundtrack to the 1991 film about the baroque composer Marin Marais, Tous les Matins du Monde. Starring Gérard Depardieu, it was the perfect popular platform for Savall’s own instrument, the viola da gamba.
That success also brought to a wider audience what loyal listeners already knew: that early music under Savall’s direction is exhilarating. Improvised passages in Hespèrion XXI’s medieval repertoire can induce a kind of keyed-up trance in audiences. As both musicologist and conductor, Savall knows how to marry head and heart, his rigorous research into sources always transformed, through performance, into emotion.
He is also a prolific, tireless bridger of cultures. His vast discography – some 160 recordings – ranges across Bach, Lully, Matthew Locke, Tobias Hume, Monteverdi, the lights of Spanish Renaissance music, Spain’s Jewish diaspora and, more recently, the soundworlds of Israel, Turkey and especially Armenia, whose music Savall adores.
“And there’s still so much more to do,” he adds. His punishing schedule, he says, “helps me to live. By throwing myself into my music, I feel closer to Montserrat.”
The next Hespèrion recording, to be released this summer, is centred on Joan of Arc, a figure who has long fascinated Savall. In the early 1990s he scored the music for Jacques Rivette’s film cycle about the girl warrior, and discovered her to be “an amazing character. An early example of a political prisoner.”
For this project, Savall has been mining the detailed accounts of her trial, and studying old ballads of the period “to reveal the trajectory of her life entirely through music”. He has examined popular dances at the time of the Hundred Years War, as well as the kind of military brass music that might have sounded around the Maid of Orléans as she rode into battle.
The Joan of Arc project will be released on Savall’s own Alia Vox label, continuing Hespèrion’s ambitious recent programme (together with Savall’s choir, the Capella Reial de Catalunya) to recreate historical narratives through music. Dinastia Borgia won a Grammy in 2010 for its musical chronology of the family’s rise to power. Selections from last year’s Mare Nostrum, a compilation of Christian, Jewish and Muslim music from the Mediterranean basin, will be performed at the Aldeburgh Festival next month.
Even more dazzling in its scope is Jerusalem, a musical narrative of the city from 1200BC through to the Holocaust and the Palestinian exile, and which includes Figueras’s heart-stopping rendition of the Sibylline oracles.
Nothing in Savall’s early life gives any hint of such boundless multiculturalism. Born in 1941 in a small industrial city in rural Catalonia, he remembers “a difficult childhood … in a town blighted by the civil war”. His father, marginalised for his anti-Franco views, worked for a while as a mattress-maker, for which the young Savall was mocked by the priests at school. The school choir provided him with his first musical education, but by the age of 14, Savall was working in a factory.
“As a child, I soon realised our society contains different categories of human beings. There were the bourgeois families, and there were people like us.” The experience, he says, made him keenly aware of injustice. It partly explains why he’s always been drawn to the Jews and the Armenians, “peoples whose music reflects that struggle to survive … When I work with those musicians, I think, my God! The power of their harmonies is incredible!”
While he’d always enjoyed singing, it was overhearing rehearsals for Mozart’s Requiem one day that made him decide to become a musician. Without telling his parents, he started cello classes at the age of 16. “I realised it was a way to be free, to flee the injustice of the world,” he explains, a flight that would eventually take him to study at the Barcelona conservatoire. At about the same time as he met his future wife, Savall was to make another decision around which the rest of his life would turn.
This occurred in his early twenties in a library, surrounded by viol scores. “I had all these volumes open, Marais, Couperin … I picked them up, one after the other, and thought, this is all so beautiful, it’s all here, sleeping, and nobody has looked at it, and that’s when I took the decision to give up the cello, and start all over again with the viola da gamba. Everyone, of course, thought I was mad.”
The harpist Andrew Lawrence-King, a close friend, says such moments of spontaneity and uncompromising musicianship characterise Savall’s career.
Having played with Hespèrion for more than 20 years, Lawrence-King knows at first hand what Savall demands: nothing less than the technical abilities of the best classical performers, the spontaneity and improvisational skills of jazz musicians, and the adaptability of seasoned accompanists. “And all this,” Lawrence-King adds, “while touring! Working with Hespèrion is like surfing in big waves. It’s exhilarating, but you can get overwhelmed.”
Savall’s exacting standards extend to his research, too. Rediscovering rudimentary scores from hundreds of years ago provides an exciting freedom of interpretation. “But it’s not an absolute liberty: you have to know a lot, too. And the more you know, the more freedom you have.”
In 2008, Unesco named Figueras and Savall “artists for peace”, a role he takes very seriously, holding regular concerts in aid of Oxfam Spain. His multinational collaborations are underpinned by his belief in the part early music can play in making sense of contemporary conflicts. Yet for Savall, music not only bridges cultures, but also past and present.
“The more I delve into early scores, the more I see that what was happening then, is happening today, only with different weapons … At Béziers, in 1209, they killed 20,000 people for harbouring Cathars, and I think ‘Oh, 20,000 people, that’s a shame’, but then I listen to the Chanson de la croisade, and it helps me really understand. Without memory we cannot have a civilisation. And music is part of that memory.”
Jordi Savall conducts Le Concert des Nations at St John’s, Smith Square, on May 18, and Hespèrion XXI at Aldeburgh Festival on June 23