In the rarified early music circles of Europe, Savall is a major star, a scholar of 15th, 16th, and 17th-century music and a virtuoso performer on the viol, an early string instrument. Played much like the modern cello — though held between the knees, as it lacks an endpin — the viol comes in a variety of sizes, ranging from treble to contrabass (also known as a violone). The ensemble brought six different types, which made for a beautiful blend of harmonies throughout the evening.
The program traced the development of European instrumental music from its emergence in the 15th century to the transitional period of the late Renaissance and early Baroque in the late16th century. The arc also covered a wide geographical swath, from the Court of Burgundy in France through Venice, Naples, and Paris to the court of King Henry VIII in England.
With percussionist David Mayoral setting a stately pace, the ensemble opened with a set of short instrumental works from Burgundy, followed by a quartet of Italian dances. By modern standards, these can seem quite dry, as the style of composition and playing at the time did not allow for much expression. While the ensemble was appropriately restrained, the craftsmanship in bringing the pieces to life was dazzling.
The pace picked up with a quartet of Spanish dances that closed the first half. The form allowed the players to open up a bit, lending some colors to the music while staying meticulously close to its original character. The layering was particularly impressive — opening with a solo lute or viol line, and adding the other instruments as the piece progressed. In a flourish of improv in the final piece, Savall had a chance to show his fluid style and stellar technique, even getting a fine vibrato out of his tiny treble viol.
An elegant set of compositions from 16th-century Lyon opened the second half and gave the ensemble an opportunity to develop surprisingly rich harmonies, all the more striking in the context of crisp playing. The tones the group achieved in the next set of 16th-century British works were sublime, the kind of sound heard only from expert musicians playing period instruments. The closing set of consorts once again gave Savall a chance to improvise, reeling off some complex runs that hardly seem possible on an antique instrument.
For aficionados, there was a very good presentation by Savall after intermission, introducing the various instruments onstage and explaining their range and functions. The program book was also quite detailed in its explanation of the history and structure of the music, a reflection of the decades of scholarship and work that Savall has devoted to resurrecting a once-lost art form. He has been an important part of a movement that has turned it into a resurgent wave of players and performances, not just in Europe, but throughout the U.S.
And for casual visitors, the concert offered a sophisticated and satisfying evening of music that transported the audience to another place — not just historically, but emotionally, offering a moment of tranquility and refinement amid the tumult of the modern world. That such a program attracted a wide age range of listeners speaks to its timeless appeal, and to the great programming underway these days at the art museum.