Fans of Early Music should be familiar with Jordi Savall and his highly polished and innovative Hespèrion XXI ensemble. Savall's releases on the Alia Vox label are usually theme based and contain a highly varied, excellently performed program of Early Music works. This release is no exception. In comparison with other Early Music anthologies, the geographical and temporal focus of this release is broader, with songs having origins from, among other places, Spain, Afghanistan, Italy and Morocco; with the compositional time period ranging from the 13th to 17th century.
Those who have followed Savall's previous releases will note that the composition of the ensemble is quite different on this recording. There is no vocalist accompaniment and wind participation is limited to a single transverse flute. But there are some rather distinctive additions here. Ensemble participants, on this recording, include ouds (Middle-Eastern lutes), an Afghan rubab (a lute with sympathetic strings), a santur (an Iranian dulcimer-like instrument), a wide variety of percussion instruments, and a vielle (played by Savall).
The program itself features alternating sequences of Eastern and Western compositions, illuminating the differences and similarities between the musical styles of such cultures. Some of the Western pieces are taken from the "Cantigas de Santa Maria" cycle or have their origins in the Istampittas of Medieval Italy. Some of the Eastern compositions were taken from a manuscript entitled "The Book of the Science of Music through Letters" written by the Ottoman musicologist Dimitrie Cantemir, while others were probably carried forward from a strong oral tradition.
My favorite Western compositions on the program include the lively Saltarello (Track 14) and the aggressive leaping melody of the Ductia (Track 2). While, on the other hand, my favorite Eastern compositions include the exotic Laili Djan (Track 7), the sensuous Mola Mamad Djan (Track 19) and the assertive, rhythmically-charged Turk melody, Makam Uzal Sakil 'Turna' (Track 21). Even though each composition can be designated with an "East" or "West" title, one of purposes in compiling this program was to show that the cultures and religions making their homes on the different sides of the Mediterranean were not always at odds with each other, and the exchange of ideas did take place. This exchange notably manifests itself through the fact that the first bowed instruments came from the East. Additionally, the melodies of Medieval Europe, filled with leaping intervals, ornamented phrases and syncopations, contain much in common with Eastern music. As an example, listen to the intricate melody of the Italian Istampitta: In Pro (Track 8). Throughout this program, the underlying beat of the darbouka, tambor and other percussion instruments serves as an unifying element between the East and West (the lively and virtuosic percussion playing on this recording deserves special mention).
As with Savall's previous releases, the playing, as well as the sound quality, is fantastic. Similar to the previous Hespèrion releases on Alia Vox, the disc is distinctively packaged within a tri-fold case, with picture laden program notes inserted in the front cover. In conclusion, this release is enthusiastically recommended to those who enjoy highly varied, and exciting early music programs; even to those who (think that they) have little or no interest in Eastern early music.