CAMBRIDGE — It all started in Venice. At least, much of what we know as classical music started there. That was the theme of “Musica Nova 1500-1700: Venetian Influences in Musical Europe,” the program Jordi Savall presented at Sanders Theatre on Sunday, under the auspices of the Boston Early Music Festival.
With his ensembles Hespèrion XXI, La Capella Reial de Catalunya, and Le Concert des Nations, Savall has made musical journeys, in programs and recordings, to England, France, Italy, Istanbul, Syria, Jerusalem, Armenia, the Balkans, China, Japan, and the New World. The version of Hespèrion XXI the Grammy-winning Catalan viol player and conductor brought to Sanders was a four-piece viol consort — treble (Savall), alto (Philippe Pierlot), tenor (Imke David), and bass (Pierlot and Lorenz Duftschmid) — backed by violone (Xavier Puertas), theorbo and guitar (Xavier Díaz-Latorre), and percussion (David Mayoral). The program began with Venetian dances of the early 16th century — pavane, galliard, todesco, saltarello, hungaresca — before moving on to developments in England, France, and Germany and then winding up in Savall’s native Iberia.
Warmer and more intimate than modern string instruments, the viol family is ideal for civil musical conversation. As always with Savall’s ensembles, the conversation at Sanders was gracious and imaginative, and also rhythmically infectious. Melancholy pieces like John Dowland’s “Lacrimae Pavan” languished without longueurs. Andrea Gabrieli’s “Ricercar VII,” with its lovely bass viol interplay from Pierlot and Duftschmid, was all sighs and ardors; the anonymous “Bourrée d’Avignonez” sped up at the end, as if challenging the dancers. Mayoral’s propulsive percussion ranged from discreet in Dowland’s courtly “King of Denmark Galliard” to thunderous in Giuseppe Guami’s Canzon 4 “Sopra la battaglia” and Samuel Scheidt’s “Galliard Battaglia XXI.”
As the afternoon went on, you could hear how Venice moved this music, mostly dances at the start, toward the Baroque. The use of imitation — one instrument after another repeating the same idea — in Giovanni Battista Grillo’s “Capriccio V” seemed to presage the fugue. Biagio Marini’s “Passacaglia à 4” offered a luminous repeating bass line. Giovanni Legrenzi’s Sonata VI for four viols, with a central gigue section, began to suggest the music Venice’s most famous composer, Antonio Vivaldi, would be writing in the 18th century.
Savall closed the program by improvising on anonymous works and a galliard by Antonio Valente, his 75-year-old fingers as nimble as ever. There was one encore, a lighthearted “Satyrn Tanz” by William Brade, and then Savall waved goodbye.
Presented by the Boston Early Music Festival. At Sanders Theatre, Cambridge, Feb. 5.
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.