Hespérion XXI (formerly Hespérion XX, but renamed to honour the new century) is one of the most accomplished ensembles specialising in the early music of the Iberian peninsula. It is one of the ongoing collectives led by the formidable Jordi Savall, renowned for his interpretations on the viol da gamba. The members are always changing, which makes the ensemble simply a name for a grouping of artists and interpreters of this immensely rich musical heritage, yet always under Savall's masterful direction. Diaspora Sefardi is a double-CD of music of the Sephardic Jews, a diverse culture originating in Spain and later settling in countries around the Mediterranean after their expulsion from most of Spain in 1492. Never losing sight of their basic identity as Jews or their awareness of their Spanish origins, the Sephardic culture gradually incorporated numerous influences from the peoples among whom it evolved: from the Arab culture of north Africa, from the Turks, Greeks, Bulgarians, Rumanians, Serbocroats, etc. In short, Sephardic music is an amazing blend of all these influences, immediately recognisable for its unique manifestation of this diversity.
Led by the impeccable soprano Montserrat Figueras, a generous collection of sephardic romances resides on disc one, and ten instrumental pieces are found on disc two. Savall (performing on lira, viola and rebab) is joined by some virtuoso players here: Pedro Estevan on percussions, Yair Dalal on oud, Andrew Lawrence-King on arpa doppia, Pedro Memelsdorff on flutes, and a handful of others on psaltry, qanun, laud, sarod and medieval harp. This recording differs in kind from other interpretations (by Savall or by countless other interpreters of this music) in that it employs a more diverse instrumentation that lies beyond the standard western European grouping of percussion, viol, flutes and harps, and rather embraces the instrumentations of eastern influences of this music (oud, qanun, sarod, etc.).
Disc one, subtitled "Por que llorax blanca nina" (Why do you weep fair child?) is a selection of beautiful songs, mostly from 16th and 17th century documents, though all of them look back much earlier to a very old tradition of songs. Montserrat Figueras is full of vitality, her breathtaking voice and accomplished techniques show her complete mastery of this challenging material.
Disc two, "Las estrellas de los cielos" (The stars in the sky), is a diverse collection of instrumental pieces, interpreted and performed to perfection by this ensemble. This second disc is the real jewel here. Even in the complexity of rhythms, fostered by Pedro Estevan's challenging techniques, the rhythms are extremely accessible, allowing the listener to move around within the multifaceted and subtle instrumentations. Some are traditional dance pieces, while others more meditative reflections and variations on the music of the popular romances.
Listening to this music is always a rewarding enterprise. Full of surprises, it never provokes the same response twice. This release comes highly recommended for the curious listener. It comes beautifully packaged with lyrics and an informative essay by Paloma Diaz-Mas.