|Viola da gamba player Jordi Savall led Hespèrion XXI in ''Music in the Time of Cervantes.''|
CAMBRIDGE - Among early music groups, few can match the wide scope and sheer vibrancy of Hespèrion XXI, the ensemble led by viola da gamba player Jordi Savall. The charismatically intelligent Savall is known for rediscovering neglected works from centuries past and infusing them with a buoyancy that belies early music's reputation for being stodgy and dry.
"Music in the Time of Cervantes," was the title of Saturday's concert. Rather than aim for specific literary connections, the program collected instrumental works - mostly dances - composed during the Renaissance and early Baroque, a span that encompasses the life of the author of "Don Quixote."
The concert was organized as a musical tour of Europe and England. Part of what made it so entertaining was the chance to hear how different dance forms sounded in different places. An anonymous pavan and galliard from northern Italy sounded courtly and slightly subdued. The same dances, set by Spanish composer Luys Milán, came off as more lively and extroverted. A moresca composed by Pedro Guerrero sounded improbably funky, thanks to the subtle percussion work of Hespèrion's Pedro Estevan.
Contrasts were intelligently deployed. Three stately French dances from the era of Louis XIII were followed by surprisingly complex pieces by the German composer Samuel Scheidt. Works by three British composers - Orlando Gibbons, Henry Purcell, and John Dowland - all had a gently melancholy cast, suggesting perhaps that if the British weren't much for dancing, they were unmatched at lamenting. They were superbly played.
A Spanish dance called a canario provided the chance for some improvisation. Savall took the opportunity to show off some dazzling fingerwork, and there were understated exchanges between him and guitarist Xavier Diaz-Latorre. It was so engaging that the group reprised it as one of two encores.
When it was over, the audience response was fervent. Since when do early-music groups receive screams and whistles? What is Hespèrion's secret?
Perhaps it's something Cervantes put his finger on. "Music," he wrote in his great novel, "lulls the disordered thoughts, and elevates the dejected spirits."