There is something unmistakably priestly about Jordi Savall, as was evidenced at this recital Tuesday night. A calm austerity glowed from his striking bearded face and introspective comportment. His plain black tunic and red sash seemed to distinguish his consecration, and mark the recital as more invocation than entertainment. The Spanish viol player, conductor, and early music champion is serious about his work, and respectful, even when that music derives from Celtic folk song and playful dance traditions. Not to imply anything oppressive, only that Savall is a purist, and his music is to be sought and found on its own plane.
The program featured a survey of English, Irish, Scottish, and American folk music in seven short sets or suites, classed by tuning, and performed alternately on bass viol and treble viol. Savall is a virtuoso, scholar, and advocate of the viol family of stringed instruments, which disappeared from conventional classical music in the 18th century. Although played with a bow, and superficially resembling a viola or cello in size, viols have more strings and are fretted. One of the great delights of this recital was to hear the difference. For example, while conventional bowed strings usually play one or two notes at a time, the “gambist” (viol player) can strum chords, which resemble a guitar when played in the upper register. And like the guitar, too, left hand pull-offs and hammer-ons can be used to great effect because of the frets — a technique capitalized on Tuesday with Celtic music ornamentation.
Savall, who has released more than 230 albums in his 50-year career, hailed this terrain six years ago with his Celtic Viol albums, volumes I and II. Bodhrán (Celtic hand drum) master Frank McGuire, who was featured on volume II, accompanied Savall Tuesday. The evening, in fact, began with a mesmerizing solo by Scotsman McGuire, who was uniformed in traditional kilt and knee socks. From the start, the performance was rhythmic delight, not only the ostensible pace of reels and hornpipes, but the laments and ballads that moved in surreal time flows, punctuated with lightning-strike ornaments.