Savall/Figueras/Psonis, Wigmore Hall

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The Independent Culture

Sometimes the rationale underlying a concert is as important as the music itself, and so was it with this visit from the Catalan musicologist Jordi Savall, his singer wife Montserrat Figueras, and the Greek multi-instrumentalist Dimitri Psonis.

Their focus was – as it has been ever since they began their musical crusade twenty years ago – the cultural rift which opened up when the Moors and Jews were expelled from the Iberian peninsula in the sixteenth century, and when the three-way interchange which had existed between these groups and the Iberian Christians was suddenly extinguished. As their programme-note declared: ‘Arab and Jew seem to have forgotten their former, life-giving family ties, while Muslim East and Christian West are locked in confrontation...’ In their view the mission of art in the 21st century should be ‘a dialogue between cultures, and between souls’.

Thus it was that they presented us with a battery of traditional instruments from all round the Mediterranean, and with songs and instrumental interludes from Valencia, Salonika, Rhodes, Jerusalem, Istanbul, and Smyrna. ‘Mare Nostrum’ was the title of their performance: ‘our sea’.

The most striking thing about this concert was the music’s homogeneity, though, since most of the songs were sung in Sephardic-Jewish Ladino, this should have come as no surprise. The perennial cadences of the synagogue cantor seemed to lurk behind everything Figueras sang, with her high, delicately-ornamented melodic lines and their plangent downward swoops. While Savall rang the changes with three medieval bowed instruments – the rebab, rebec, and vielle – Psonis played the santur zither, the Moorish guitar, and a selection of Middle-Eastern drums: the human voice soared above a subtly-shifting kaleidoscope of instrumental colour.

A lullaby in which voice and instruments echoed each other created a great surrounding stillness, and the Jewish setting of the 3rd-century BC ‘Sybilline Oracles’ had visionary mystery: ‘Drops of blood from the stones shall fall to the earth as a sign/ Then God, who dwells in heaven, shall bring all war to an end.’

There were just two irritations. There was no musical or historical information in the programme-notes; and, beautiful though Figueras’s voice was, her diction was impossible to follow, and she made no attempt to characterise her songs.