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Monday, March 24, 2014

Honey and Blood

CREATION – BIG-TIME, putting-together-a-universe-type creation – is a deliberate, often improvisational business. It’s the opening up of forces that will combine in harmony and destruction. With humans involved, there will be creative examples of the latter.

Jordi Savall’s latest and most magnificent music collection opens with a Gypsy improvisation in which viola, bass, and cimbalom combine in a slow improvisation. It must be a familiar-enough sound in some southern-European cafés, and a check of YouTube videos by violist Janos Dani confirms this. Violinist Tcha Limberger then joins the group to welcome spring (“Birth, Dreams, and Celebration”), in a dance tune played in the style of Gypsies in Budapest, with as a lively fiddling as you’re likely to hear, with the crunchy bounce of that cimbalom buoying it.

Bal • Kan, the title of this lavish three-disc-and-a-fat-book collection, refers to a name bestowed by the Ottomans upon an area they invaded in the 15th century. The words mean honey and blood, and the area now includes Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Montenegro, and parts of Romania, Slovenia, Serbia, and Turkey.

The idea for this CD-and-book set was born in 2011, during a concert Savall dedicated to Sarajevo, recognizing the horrific siege that Serbian troops inflicted 20 years earlier. Even before that, the city was a flashpoint for the First World War. What politics rends asunder, Savall labors to unite, bringing together musicians from this variety of regions to demonstrate their sounds and styles and combine them with others – as people are naturally inclined to do when not blinded by phony patriotism.

The CD set is also a tribute to singer Montserrat Figueras, Savall’s late wife and longtime collaborator, who conceived the idea of the seasonal arrangement of the music, and who is heard in the Sephardic “Aleph, mem, shin,” appropriately positioned as Creation is just getting underway.

Savall’s protean ensemble, Hespèrion XXI, is joined by instrumentalists and singers from Bulgaria and Macedonia, Hungary, Serbia and Romania, Greece, Bosnia and Turkey, and Armenia, among other regions, and the progression of tracks on each of the discs plays no favorites.

Along with collecting from Gypsy sources, Savall and his musicians researched Sephardic and Ottoman repertories, striving to realize the music they found with original instruments of each culture. And it’s a long stretch. The Ottoman Empire proved to be a unifying force, allowing many cultures and religions to live side by side, but not a peaceful one – the area’s population was reduced by more than half over two centuries.

Those are a lot of sources to mine for music, but a spirit of Gypsy musicians pervades the area and reveals more commonality than difference among the component nationalities. The modes and rhythms change, but there’s a sense of optimism, however tinged it may be with melancholy, that runs through the brilliantly programmed sequence.

That’s the most ineffable and most impressive aspect of this set, and it’s up against a wildly impressive bunch of predecessors. The cumulative effect of each of the seasons – each of the discs – the set as a whole – feels so much more comforting than the sum of its parts might suggest. In its own Gypsy-inflected way, it’s like the cumulative effect of Harry Smith’s iconic Anthology of American Folk Music, when you’re confronted with the sense that you just took a hell of a journey without even realizing it had begun.

For example: Winter (“spirituality, sacrifice, exile, and death”) arrives at the start of Disc 3, but the second tune in this segment, eight and a half minutes of instrumental improvisation on the Serbian song “Stani, stani, Ibar vodo” (“Stop, stop, river Ibar”) sneaks you into a place of delight with the hypnotic sounds of the recorder-like frula, played by Bora Dugić. Two tracks later, singer Stoimenka Outchikova-Nedyalkova tears your heart out with “Zaplakala e dovitsa” (“A Widow Was Weeping”) from Bulgaria.

There’s a (ré)conciliation at the end, during which four glorious songs intermingle, as you might say, in succession. From Greece comes “Apo xeno meros” (“From a Foreign, Far-Off Land”), sung by Irini Derebei; the Turkish folksong “Üsküdar” refers to a province of Istanbul, but tells a story of love, which grows even more intimate in the next number, from central Serbia, the incredibly affecting “Ruse Kose” (“Golden Hair,”) in the beautiful voice of Agi Szalóki. There’s one more appearance by Figueras, with the Sephardic lullaby “Durme hermosa donzella” (“Sleep, My Beautiful Girl”), before the collection ends with another upbeat Gypsy instrumental that gives way to the most of the ensemble joining in song.

I’ve listened to this set a half-dozen times already and I still can’t say with any authority why it works so well. I should have been prepared for it by “Balkan Spirit,” a single-disc set that came out last summer, packaged in a 400-page CD-sized booklet, that paved the way with more such music.

As an ambassador for peace, Savall has taken on a noble, never-ending job. Doing it with music, the way he does with these recordings and the many, many concerts he gives, leaves a commendable trail of inspiration.

Bal • Kan: Voices of Memory, Cycles of Life
Esprit des Balkans (Balkan Spirit)

Hespèrion XXI
Jordi Savall, conductor
Alia Vox

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