I remember well the first time I heard the music of Tobias Hume. It was in late 1984, and a neighbor in the small French village where I was living, Marie B., played me the LP of Musicall Humors. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) This disc had 13 tracks of the most astounding Renaissance music I had ever heard; it was the first time I had heard a solo viola da gamba, or viol, and, when I found a CD of this disc a half-dozen years later, I bought it immediately. It has become one of my favorite recordings. He also released a second disc of music by Hume in 2004. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)
Later, having fallen in love with this solo instrument, I tried my hand at playing it, and played a number of these pieces during my short tenure as a viol player. (I stopped after a car accident made it hard for me to turn my neck, and never went back, having only rented an instrument.) But I’ve always loved this music, and when I saw that Jordi Savall was to give a recital in London, at the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, next to the Globe Theatre, I immediately bought tickets.
The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse was opened a few months ago. It’s a reconstruction of an indoor Jacobean theatre, and Shakespeare is believed to have written plays to be performed in this type of theatre. The Globe performs plays, and holds concerts in this theatre, by candlelight.
The theatre holds about 340 people, and one sits on hard wooden benches without backs (though the last row in each section – pit, lower gallery and upper gallery do have backs; the wall), and it’s quite cramped, with very little legroom. One woman left shortly after the concert began, no doubt because of the discomfort of sitting.
In addition, it is very hot inside the theater; I was sweating throughout the performance, even though there was air conditioning on. (At least it was on when we entered the theater; it may have been turned off after that.) It was so hot that one person in the audience fainted as he was trying to leave, about 45 minutes into the performance. He clearly didn’t felt well, but didn’t make it out of the theater and collapsed on the stairs next to me, only to be carried out by some of the staff and other audience members.
So the venue had two strikes against it when the show started: absurdly uncomfortable seats, and excessive heat. I was still excited to hear Mr. Savall, but this excitement quickly changed to disappointment as he began playing. While Jordi Savall is certainly one of the finest performers of music for viol, it’s clear that, at 73, he’s way past his prime. His playing was sloppy and discordant, as he kept hitting false notes. Music like this for solo viol uses the many strings on the instrument – Savall was playing a seven-string viol – to create polyphony. There are often double stops, or even chords played by sort of rolling the bow across the strings. Unfortunately, many times that Savall played such chords he ended up hitting notes that weren’t part of the chords, creating dissonant screeches that destroyed the fabric of the music.
Savall also had little control over the tempi of what he was playing. He seemed to rush many of the melodies, not giving them time to breathe, and seemed hurried to be finished. The result was a poor performance, more like that of a student than a professional. I was surprised to read this review of the performance, which found the concert to be “a masterful recital by a unique figure in music.” The reviewer is clearly unfamiliar with the music, and wasn’t able to notice how poorly it was played. Alas, having played this music, I was all too aware of the numerous mistakes.
In addition to the poor playing, it was clear that the heat was playing tricks on the gut strings on Mr. Savall’s viol. He would play three or four pieces, then need to spend a couple of minutes tuning. He played these groups of pieces with little pause between them, making it hard for those unfamiliar with the music to even realize that they were different pieces, and not, for example, movements of a suite. About every 15 minutes, he would stop, stand, and receive applause, before tuning his instrument again.
All in all this was a very disappointing evening. In part, the venue was horrible. I’ll never return there, with its uncomfortable seats and its torrid atmosphere. But above all, Jordi Savall showed that he’s no longer able to perform this music. While it’s not virtuoso music in any way, the polyphonic nature of solo viol music means that playing it without hitting the wrong notes is no simple matter.
I’ll still listen to his recordings of Tobias Hume’s music, though; it’s some of the finest music for solo viol. You should do so too.