Jordi Savall, Montserrat Figueras
La Capella Reial de Catalunya & Hespèrion XXI
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Jordi Savall, Montserrat Figueras,
La Capella Reial de Catalunya and Hespèrion XXI

Dinastia Borja (Borgia Dynasty: Church and Power in the Renaissance)
Alia Vox (www.alia-vox.com)

The Catalan maestro Jordi Savall has been producing an enviable body of early music works for several decades, both as a performer on the viola da gamba and as a director of such ensembles as Hespèrion XXI. Savall also founded his own label, Alia Vox, just prior to the new millennium (at which point Hespèrion XX became Hespèrion XXI). Savall is not just an excellent musician; he surrounds himself with other amazing musicians, such as vocalist Montserrat Figueras, harp player Andrew Lawrence-King, and harpsichordist Ton Koopman. Many artists who have associated themselves with Savall and his brand of historical interpretation of early works have released solo works, including lutenist Rolf Lislevand and viola da gambist Paolo Pandolfo. Savall has become a true giant in the classical world, which has resulted in both avid followers and detractors. I always find Savall’s work to be interesting and immersive; his interpretations of Bach, Marin Marais, and Sainte-Colombe are, I believe, some of the most sublime recorded. Savall, La Capella Reial de Catalunya, and Hespèrion XXI have also mined the music of Spain and the Mediterranean, charting the rich musical interactions between Christians, Jews, and Moors.

Alia Vox has lately been issuing a series of projects by Savall that are packaged as lavish hardcover books, with the accompanying CDs placed in laminated inner sleeves. The results are themed early music programs. Past projects have focused on the music of the times of Christopher Columbus; Miguel de Cervantes; the city of Jerusalem; the religious sect of the Cathars and the realm of Occitania; and, at the most ambitious, that of Francisco Javier (St. Francis Xavier), where Savall and company explored the early music of Asia. The latest to join these impressive volumes, filled with period art, performer pictures, and historical notes (in several languages) is the 3-CD Borgia Dynasty project.

Dinastia Borja traces the rise of the Borgia family, their influence on the Renaissance, and the eventual canonization of Francisco de Borja (St. Francis Borgia). Here was a family that rose to be one of the most powerful in Italy, producing two Popes (Callistus III and Alexander VI), a Saint, and individuals whose names were enshrined in notorious tales (and real deeds of) bloodshed and perversity (i.e., Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia).

The historical liner notes in this set suffer a bit; perhaps from translation, or perhaps on the assumption that the reader and listener already knows something of the drama of the Borgia family. However, a number of themes shine through. First, that Italy in the Renaissance was a time when influential families vied for as much power as they could grab, and by any means necessary. For a family such as the Borgias, who originated in Spain, ascension to the Papacy was accomplished through great guile and wealth. Hanging onto the Papacy was also no mean task, as Italy was comprised of a number of competing kingdoms; Cesare Borgia would resign from religious life to launch a military and political campaign in an attempt to unite central Italy. Another historical theme is that of complex ideological flavor of the Borgia Papacies. On the one hand, the family wrapped itself in religious orthodoxy, while on the other hand they carried out nepotism, sexual affairs, and the occasional convenient murder. Politics had to be deftly handled, due to competing interests in Italy amongst not only Italian and Spanish factions, but other foreign influences such as the French. The Borgia courts also existed at a time when humanism was on the rise – and so while the family had its feet wedded to the traditional demands of ceremonial religious finery, they also supported the flourishing artistic and literary talents of the Italian Renaissance.

The other important theme of Dinastia Borja is that of St. Francis Borgia, who appears to atone for all the ill-will that had been directed towards the Borgia family. The Borgias’ success bred them no end of enemies, so that Pope Alexander VI was accused of being not only the Antichrist, but also of having committed incest. A century after Alexander VI’s death, Francisco de Borja appears as the spiritual salvation for Borgia history, a true shining knight who renounced the wealth of his family to pursue the religious life. (A turning point was when Francisco de Borja was made to accompany the dead body of Empress Isabella of Spain; along the way to her final resting place, the travelling entourage wanted to check the body to ensure that the Empress’ remains were truly in the coffin. Borja was thoroughly repulsed by her decaying corpse, and stated “Never again shall I serve a mortal master,” thereby devoting himself to God.)

As with the other Alia Vox CD-books, the musical program is divided up into historical periods with music to accompany certain events on the project’s timeline. A great variety of music is on display here; one is treated to Arabic themes, Guillaume Dufay, Josquin Des Prez, and even – on Disc 3 – a Credo in unum Deum attributed to Francisco Borja. The mood runs the gamut from the ethereal to the exciting. However, when on Disc 2 ‘The Song of the Valencian Sibyl’ began, I realized that I had heard this music before. Indeed, the (small print) copyrights on the back of the hardcover book indicate that a good deal of the music contained within the Dinastia Borja set is drawn from other Savall releases. Hence, Dinastia Borja would appear to have been cobbled together from other projects, with some new material added into the timeline to beef up the historical theme. (And, at times, there is even narration between tracks to carry on the narrative.) There is not anything wrong with doing so; Savall is certainly not the only early music director to collate diverse sources into a program. However, with Dinastia Borja running anywhere between sixty to eighty dollars, the consumer should have been provided with more information on the new and repetitive material in this release.

That said, I do love the care with which Savall assembles these projects, and their presentation. The intent is to really make history live and breathe (and be tangible – you could break a toe by dropping Dinastia Borgia on your foot). If one’s interest is piqued, chances are that the listener will investigate the explored era and its socio-cultural context in more detail. In this age of immaterial downloading, how wonderful it is to have such a reminder of the ageless pursuit of Art. – Lee Blackstone

CD available from cdRoots

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