Review: Venice’s Rich Musical Heritage Performed By An Array of International Artists
By Christopher Johnson, Contributing Writer, February 6, 2017
Add Carnegie Hall to the list of places where spontaneous political demonstrations have erupted over the past few weeks. If that setting seems improbable, the inciting event—a musico-historical smorgasbord kicking off La Serenissima: Music and Arts from the Venetian Republic—was even more so. This vast enterprise, anchored at the Hall, consists of forty performances, talks, exhibitions, and digital exhibits that will occupy much of the city for most of the month of February The opening concert, organized and led by Jordi Savall, the great Catalonian viol-player, comprised an almost encyclopedic survey of music in Venice from that city’s origins in the eighth century through its final collapse, in the face of Napoleon’s armies, in 1797.
Skirting the obvious landmarks—the grandly Catholic antiphonal works associated with the Basilica di San Marco and with the schuole—Savall focused on the fact that Venice supported a startling array of religious traditions while simultaneously displaying an almost aggressive worldliness, from its highly developed taste for lampoons and satires, to its perpetual steely-eyed readiness for war.
Religious music included Syrian and Byzantine chant, a Berber ritual dance, a Mozarabic prayer, Salamone Rossi’s Hebrew setting of Psalm 137, a Lutheran metrical psalm, and an astonishing piece by Peter the Byzantine that may have been written as late as 1808 but preserved methods clearly audible in John of Damascus’s Alleluia, the earliest item on the program. And who knew Venice had so many Armenians?
The secular pieces were similarly varied and unexpected. Willaert, for example, was represented, not by the artful polyphony that won him the top job at San Marco, but by a perky madrigal slamming “spiteful old hags,” and Vivaldi’s unusually mellow chorus in honor of Louis XV of France set up the political tension that dominated the rest of the evening. Dufay’s lament over the sack of Constantinople was followed by Janéquin’s ferocious victory-lap marking the Franco-Venetian triumph at Marignan, and the concert ended on a sobering note, with two meltingly lovely gondola-songs flanked by a piece of self-certain musical propaganda from the French Revolution and a crazy religio-political anthem tortured out of the slow movement of Beethoven’s Seventh and the last movement of his Fifth.
The result was quietly mesmerizing—nearly three hours long, but that’s what it took to tell this important story, and high marks to everyone for sticking with it. A few predictable tuning-problems aside, the instrumental forces, drawn from groups that Savall and his late wife Montserrat Figueras founded over their long careers, did a fine job, and the guest soloists, from Greece, Turkey, and Armenia, were just staggering. Haïg Sarikouyoumdjian drew poetry from the duduk—an Armenian oboe-like instrument with a vast range of timbres, sounding sometimes like a dusky flute, sometimes almost like a saxophone, but sweeter—that no one who heard it will ever forget. Hakan Güngör, playing the kanun, a plucked zither of astonishing tonal depth within a narrow dynamic range, did an inspired interlude connecting the Vivaldi chorus to Mozart’s famous “Rondo alla turca,” and got a well-deserved appreciative chuckle for his motivically-brilliant lead-in. Yurdal Tokcan, on the oud—the richer, more confiding ancestor of the Western lute—was quietly on fire all night, and Dimitri Psonis, electrifying on the santur, a struck zither, delivered himself of a spectacular interlude connecting—of all things—an earnest rhymed setting of Psalm 35 to a Persian dance for the whole ensemble that nearly brought the house down. (I say “nearly” because of Savall’s occasional tendency to pull back from emphatic conclusions—in this case, by building to a huge climax and then stepping on it with a soft, messy final chord.) David Mayoral, the percussionist of Le Concert des Nations, sat in with all the other groups, as well; he was perfect.
The singing ranged from good—the Capella Reial de Catalunya—to exceptional—baritone Furio Zanasi, who narrated the battle between Tancredi and Clorinda as if it were this minute’s breaking news—to life-changing—the stupendous Orthodox-Byzantine Vocal Ensemble, of Thessaloniki, Greece. Words cannot convey this latter group’s power to focus and still a room, and neither do the samples here and here—you have to see it for yourself, and feel in your bones the elemental power of those perfectly tuned, exquisitely controlled drones. The group consists of only six singers, and even though they never pressed or went for effect, they filled the space, and nothing else moved while they were working. This was sublime art. We were lucky to have been there.
There was a richly-deserved ovation at the end, and Savall gave a brief curtain-speech. He mentioned in passing that the performers had come from fourteen different countries, and the house burst instantly into a second ovation. When that died down, he tried to go on, saying, “And I am a citizen of the world.” Pandemonium: a third ovation, this time with screams and shouts and much of the house standing. He then talked about the importance of teaching our children about our shared past, because it is only through knowledge of the good and the evil that we have done that civilization can continue, and at that point the place simply erupted. Everybody in the room had just been shown how one of the world’s great cultures trivialized and commodified itself, and then fell, like the proverbial rotten fruit, to a bellicose arriviste with size-issues and a titanic chip on his shoulder, whose ambition was exceeded only by his depthless need for praise and glory. Savall’s program has been in the works and on the boards for some time now, so there’s no way it was planned to draw the obvious analogy, but the point nevertheless hung painfully in the air.
They finished with a musical benediction: a single continuous prayer, begun by Sarikouyoumdjian on the duduk, continued by the Capella in plainchant and then by the whole company in a setting by Arvo Pärt, and finally taken up by the Orthodox-Byzantine ensemble, ending on a single, quiet, long-held note. It was like being drawn back, gently and perhaps only provisionally, from the lip of a volcano. We didn’t catch the words, but we knew what it meant.
La Serenissima: Music and Arts from the Venetian Republic / The Millenarian Venice: Gateway to the East / 700-1797: A Crossroads Between the Orient and Europe presented by Carnegie Hall on February 3, 2017. Jordi Savall, director, treble viol, and lyra; Yurdal Tokcan, oud; Dimitri Psonis, santur and morisca; Hakan Güngör, kanun; Haïg Sarikouyoumdjian, duduk and belul; Orthodox-Byzantine Vocal Ensemble, Panagiotis Neochoritis, director; La Capella Reial de Catalunya; Hespèrion XXI; Le Concert des Nations.
ANON. Calling of the Bells and Fanfare
JOHN OF DAMASCUS “Alleluia”
MARCABRU “Pax in nomine Domini!“
TRADITIONAL Dance of the Soul, from the North African Berber Ritual
ANON. Ton Dhespotin, from the Sunday Service of Orthros
TRADITIONAL Armenian Song and Dance
CONDUCTUS “O totius Asie Gloria”
ANON. “Pasan tin elpida mou”
ANON. Chiave, chiave
ANON. Penitentes orate, 11th-century Mozarabic prayer
ANON. “Tin dheisin mou”
DUFAY “O tres piteulx” / “Omnes amici eius”
JANEQUIN Escoutez tous gentilz” (La bataille de Marignan; La guerre)
ROSSI “Al naharot bavel,” from Hashirim asher lish’lomo
WILLAERT “Vecchie letrose, non valete niente”
KLADAS Yefvsasthe kai idhete, from the Holy Eucharist
LOBWASSER “Ficht wieder meine Anfechter” (Psalm 35), from Der Psalter … in deutsche reyme (arr. Claude Goudimel)
TRADITIONAL Laïla Djân
MONTEVERDI Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda
VIVALDI “Di queste selve venite, o Numi,” from La senna festeggiante, RV 693
MOZART Rondo alla turca from Piano Sonata in A Major, K. 331 (arr. Jordi Savall)
MARCHANT “Nous sommes tous égaux,” from La constitution française en chanson (arr. Jordi Savall)
ANON. “Per quel bel viso,” from A Second Set of Venetian Ballads for the German Flute, Violin, or Harpsichord compos’d by Sigr. Hasse and All the Celebrated Italian Masters (Gondolier Song; arr. Jordi Savall)
ANON. “Mia cara Anzoletta,” from A Second Set of Venetian Ballads for the German Flute, Violin, or Harpsichord compos’d by Sigr. Hasse and All the Celebrated Italian Masters (Gondolier Song; arr. Jordi Savall)
BORDÈSE “La Sainte Ligue” (“La nuit est sombre”), after Beethoven Symphony No. 7 and Symphony No. 5, from L’Orphéon classique populaire, fragments des chefs d’oeuvre des grand maîtres (arr. Jordi Savall)
Cover: Jordi Savall conducts artists from Orthodox-Byzantine Vocal Ensemble, La Capella Reial de Catalunya, Hespèrion XXI, and Le Concert des Nations; photo: Chris Lee.