Montserrat Figueras: Soprano celebrated for her mastery of pre-Baroque music

One evening in 1988 my girlfriend and I were driving home from work when one of the most exquisite sounds I had heard emerged from the car radio.

I asked her to pull in at the side of the road so I could pay more attention. It was obviously something medieval: a drone below a slow-moving chordal choral texture above which a dazzlingly clear soprano voice spun a line of the purest silk, as strong as it was delicate. That voice belonged to the Catalan soprano Montserrat Figueras, in a new recording, El Cant de la Sibilla, three sibylline chants – Latin, Provençal and Catalan – recorded with her husband, Jordi Savall, and the early-music group they had recently founded, La Capella Reial de Catalunya.

What made Figueras' voice so compelling was its uncanny blend of purity and power, of innocence and authority. She was also a prolific recording artist, singing music from the Middle Ages to the Classical period – a longer stretch of time than from then to the present day; the early focus was the music of Spain, but soon expanded to take in most of mainland Europe and latterly stretched to the Middle East. The unusual ambit and number of those recordings made her the pre-eminent singer of pre-Baroque music for three decades.

Figueras was born into a musical family and began to study singing as a girl, intending to become an actress. Together with her sister Pilar, who has also made a number of striking recordings of medieval music, she paid especial attention to early vocal techniques. Joining a local choir, Aleluya, she graduated from there to an early-music group, Ars Musicae de Barcelona, with which Victoria de los Angeles had made her earliest surviving recording.

Figueras and Savall had already encountered each other, as Savall later recalled: "We met in cello class, when we were both studying cello around the age of 22 or 23. My teacher was not very comfortable with the way I played Bach. Montserrat would remain behind, listening from the hallway. When I'd leave the class, she'd always say to me very softly, 'Don't worry. You play very well'. This was a fantastic feeling that lasted the whole day."

A little later, Enric Gispert, the conductor of Ars Musicae, asked Figueras if she knew a good viola da gamba player for another Los Angeles recording that was on the horizon. Figueras wondered if Savall, already a fine cellist, might be interested, and so they both took part in the recording. This first encounter with Figueras' voice, Savall said, was "the beginning of everything".

They moved together to Basel to study at the Music Academy and Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, then the nub of the burgeoning early-music movement, and in 1968 they were wed. In their 43 years of marriage neither seemed to age much; Figueras especially retained a schoolgirl freshness that belied her age.

In 1974, together with the Argentinian bassoonist Lorenzo Alpert and American lutenist Hopkinson Smith, Savall and Figueras set up the first of their early-music consorts, Hespèrion XX, "Hesperion" being a Greek word referring to both Spain and Italy, and "XX" to site the group in the 20th century (keeping up with the times, it was renamed Hespèrion XXI in 2000). Hespèrion XX was a viol-based group, and so it was followed in 1987 by La Capella Reial de Catalunya to allow the performance of vocal music. A third group, Le Concert des Nations, followed two years later; it provided La Capella Reial with a specialist period-instrument orchestra. Each ensemble expanded the music accessible for performance, so that Figueras, Savall and their fellow musicians could eventually reach as far as opera, the mid-19th century and the music of Turkey.

A logical extension was the foundation of their own CD label, Alia Vox, in 1998. Their releases became a byword for freshness and fidelity, with recorded sound that was both immediate and warm; the recording schedule was buttressed by extensive international concertizing. The versatility of Figueras' voice was an important element in their success: whether she was singing a formal operatic aria or a simple lullaby, Figueras invested it with dignity and an essential honesty.

In a newspaper interview in 2006 Savall explained the improbable popularity of what had hitherto been a specialist activity. "Montserrat and I, we are from our time and we have our own experience and sensitivity. [But] The way we say 'I love you' has not changed through thousands of years ... The essential things in life, there is no change".

The quality of Figueras' work was acknowledged in 2003 when she was made an Officier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government, and earlier this year the government of Catalonia bestowed on her its highest civilian award, the Cross of St Jordi. By then she was already struggling against the cancer that would eventually take her life, but she carried on making music. Her last concert appearance was in August, and her last recording, La Sublime Porte: Voix d'Istanbul, 1430–1750 – with, of course, her husband and Hespèrion XXI – was released only a month before she died.

Montserrat Figueras García, singer: born Barcelona 15 March 1942; married 1968 Jordi Savall (one son, one daughter); died Cerdanyola del Vallès, Spain 23 November 2011

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Appliance Service Engineer

£21000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This centre seeks an experience...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Support Analyst / Helpdesk Support Analyst

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is the UK's leading ...

Recruitment Genius: Conveyancing Fee Earner / Technical Support

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An experienced Fee Earner/Techn...

Recruitment Genius: Data Administrator

£20000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of this mu...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness