PARADISE LOST Hespèrion XX at Queen Elizabeth Hall, 5 September 1999

The presentation of this concert of Moorish-Andalusian, Jewish and Christian song in medieaval Spain came perilously near to making its title come true. It started late and when the assorted instrumentalists of Jordi Savall's Hesperion XX came onto the stage the hall was plunged into darkness and we watched for an unconscionably long time whilst the musicians tuned, several instruments each in some cases! We were warned that the interval was to be omitted, so we were deprived of the opportunity of learning about Alfonso X and the cultural confluences of his period. Nor could we follow the song texts translated printed in the programme, and most of us would have been hard put to remember when we were hearing dances from Algiers or Italy and songs from Sarajevo, Turkey or Morocco. As compensation we were regaled with 'atmosphere', consisting of lighting and disposition of performers around the hall, most originally when Monserrat Figuras, the group's distinguished singer, appeared in her red dress up on the spiral stairs at the back which give access to the control box! She negotiated a return to the platform and was the mainstay and focus of the sequence, the instrumentalists led by her husband Jordi Savall playing a variety of bowed string instruments (lira, rebab, fiddle) with verve and versatility. Others played recorders, oud, lute, harp, psaltery and quanun (whatever that is). Pedro Estevan was a dexterous and discreet finger percussionist and Kenneth Zuckermann doubled on a sarod, resplendent in white on his own carpeted platform, but this was but a pale reflection of Indian sarod playing. There was insufficient variety to maintain interest for an uninterrupted 1¾ hours, and the players spent much time playing all together, which commonly happens with middle Eastern groups, masking the individual timbres of the exotic instruments. We were left too drained to savour immediately the charms of Beowulf in medieval English, held over whilst the Spanish concert over-ran.

This may be carping criticism and it is undeniable that the music was basically beautiful, and beautifully played and sung, even though we were deprived of knowing the interesting subjects of the songs.


Peter Grahame Woolf

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