CAMBRIDGE – Viol doyen Jordi Savall finds consistency in variety. His oldest project, the storied period-instrument band Hespèrion XXI, has been touring concerts and churning out recordings of medieval through Baroque period music for almost half a century. Whatever the niche, if it’s from between the 10th and early 18th centuries, Savall probably has a Hespèrion program for it, and if he doesn’t have it already, he could create one with little trouble. Add in his other two ventures, vocal ensemble La Capella Reial de Catalunya and Baroque orchestra Le Concert des Nations, or simply watch him play; a keen, insatiable drive to unearth and enliven the world’s ancient melodies is the thing that gets him up in the morning.
Though his name appears year after year on Boston Early Music Festival’s concert season (five times in the last five seasons), one shouldn’t expect to hear the same thing twice. That said, he does have his favorite focuses, one being his Catalan homeland. When Hespèrion XXI and La Capella Reial zeroed in on Baroque-era Iberia Friday evening at Sanders Theatre, the rhythms were compelling, the language familiar to the performers, and the joy was real.
The program, “Splendor of the Iberian Baroque,” sought to give audiences a glimpse into Iberian theaters of the “Golden Century,” where music was necessary for any play. Program notes explained that some plays identified specific songs, but others just indicated “they sing and dance,” leaving options wide open both then and now. Savall filled the program with a colorful assortment of pieces: madrigal-esque part songs on beatific and bawdy subjects, lively dances, heartfelt romances, adaptations of keyboard music, and many others.
The danger in these potpourri programs from a specific geographic area and time period is that of sameness, but Savall and company cannily dodged that pitfall. First, the pieces with singers alternated with the instrumental pieces; one level deeper, tempo, mood, and instrumentation often changed up between neighboring instrumental selections. Most people won’t know a moresca from a gallarda at first blush; more important is shaping the evening’s trajectory so that it doesn’t feel like a formless blob, and Savall has this down to an art.
On the Sanders Theatre stage, Savall had no clear place of honor, instead playing as just one of the many musicians; only his infrequent cues with his viol bow indicated that he was the director at all. He showed off his improvisatory bona fides during a set of prankish canarios, making the highest string squeak like a chattering bird; later, he ran through the full gamut of human emotions with a torrid set of variations on “La Folía,” a melody that originated in Iberia and then took over Europe. He seemed to unhitch from his continuo section a few times when he got absorbed in his solos, but the group swiftly righted itself.
The players and singers all fell in line with Hespèrion’s signature vibrant style; exuberant and evocative, but not overly theatrical. (One exception: harpist Andrew Lawrence-King’s scenery-chewing reading of Casanova’s thoughts on the fandango.) Lixsania Fernández’s teal coif caught the eye, and she had even more to offer the ears — simultaneously playing the tenor viol, singing mezzo-soprano with La Capella, and grooving in her seat. Guitarist Xavier Díaz-Latorre and percussionist David Mayoral hypnotized early on with a set of jacaras and canarios, turning on a dime between whispery delicacy and sinewy force. The singers of La Capella were comfortable and confident, locking in harmonies, rhythms, and affects while not even looking at each other.
The final piece was a cutely melodramatic guaracha with a Christmas theme and a sighing refrain, ending with the phrase “now we’ll shut up.” The audience called for an encore, and the band quickly delivered.
HESPÈRION XXI AND LA CAPELLA REIAL DE CATALUNYA
At Sanders Theatre, Harvard University, Feb. 7. Presented by Boston Early Music Festival.
Zoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.