LENOX >> Like a musical Columbus, Jordi Savall crosses the ocean from the Old World to the New on voyages of discovery.
The early-music master brought three members each from his Hespèrion XXI group and the Tembembre Ensamble Continuo, from Mexico, to Tanglewood Thursday night in a program of old Latin American music inspired by European tunes. As in Hespèrion's previous visits, the period was colonial – only this time music from the British Isles made the crossing. "Greensleeves" even popped up.
These were virtuoso players, if the term is appropriate to such soft-spoken instruments as viols and theorbo. Though Savall's viols were beset by tuning problems on the sultry evening, the ensemble's crackling coordination and rhythmic flair — often over the beat of a drum — lent flavor and variety to the short pieces by composers mostly unknown to a modern audience. Improvisation figured prominently in the playing, but it blended so seamlessly into the flow that it went by virtually unnoticed.
Hespèrion takes its name from the ancient Greek name Hesperia for the Iberian and Italian peninsulas; XXI signifies the 21st century. The program was titled "Folìas Antiguas & Criollas," or follies old and of creole (hybrid) lineage.
Though often dance-like and decidedly profane, much of the music was preserved in church archives. Much was fleshed out by scholarship. Fragmentary though the repertoire is, it reflects "the astonishingly rich cultures of the indigenous peoples" as met by the explorers and colonizers, according to the program notes.
The "follies" stemmed from "La Folìa," the popular European variations form from the baroque. (Vivaldi's "La Folìa" is a well-known example.) In the two main New World examples, by Diego Ortiz and Antonia Martin y Coll, Savall improvised on the theme on a bass viol while the other instruments elaborated above (in effect making the pieces chaconnes). Faster and faster the music whirled, until it whirled away in the desired madness.
A medley of Celtic-inspired pieces offered distinctive Scottish tunes with a Scottish snap. An anonymous piece suggested a dread funeral march.
A variety of instruments lent visual interest. One looked like a miniature marimba played between the knees. Another was a white lute shaped like a boomerang. There were guitars, of course. From time to time, five of the players — all six of them were men — burst into lively song. The words were in old Spanish, with no translation, so who knows?
The program flagged toward the end with Savall's increasing need for retuning. Many of the pieces were in three beats to the bar or some variation of that, creating a kind of hypnotic effect. But always, there were musical skill and intelligence to behold.