Reviews – Tiger Lillies, New Players Theatre, and Jordi Savall, Wigmore Hall (London)

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This week I went to two concerts that couldn’t have been more different from each other: the Tiger Lillies, in London for a nearly month-long run at the New Players Theatre, and Jordi Savall, whom I had the good fortune to note (thanks to his online schedule) would be (and was) at Wigmore Hall on Friday, May 8th. Savall is probably the artist in the world whom I hold in highest esteem; the Tiger Lillies were a group I’d heard of from many people and decided to sample (in a state of general ignorance) given their good reputation and the attraction of ten quid tickets.

Jordi Savall’s program at Wigmore Hall was split in two sections: the first to me seemed to be virtuoso viol music (included music adapted for the viol); the second was music of the British Isles, including several pieces that required retuning the instrument. The opening piece, Karl Friedrich Abel’s “Prelude,” had the bow dancing over the strings from one chord shift to another in a way that left my mouth hanging open. It was just so rich and complex, and the one instrument just filled the hall with its sound. It was inexpressably gorgeous, and followed by Bach’s “Allemande in D minor” I was transported by the beauty of the music. I often think that when a performer constructs a program, one of the considerations he takes into play is which works will give him a chance to stretch himself or show off his technique. These two pieces were the utter fireworks of the evening, effectively forcing the audience to submit to the power of Savall’s playing and just exist, wordlessly, in awe and amazement while the music washed over us.

The next several pieces were primarily, to my ear, the work of Marais and St. Colombe (pere et fils), as the program was not followed (Savall announced that there would be some Fantasies by Marais played when I was expecting some Prelude in D minor by le Sieru de Machy), though “Les Pleurs” was played. In comparison to the music of Bach and Abel, I found the French viol music so much more thoughtful and nuanced. It’s just a very personal style of music, exactly the kind of thing I would expect someone to play for their own pleasure with no one else listening. The German composers seemed rather mechanical and mathematical by comparison; perfect in their own way, but more cerebral rather than emotional. I was absorbed in the experience of the incredible French music, and my friend was also struck dumb by the gorgeous, heart-wrenching music. It’s crazy to think that this music was almost forgotten in modern times; I find it some of the best ever written.

The second half was four pieces from Tobias Hume’s “Musicall Humours,” followed by what was described as “Lessons for the lyra-viol,” three pieces by Alfonso Ferrabosco (“Coranto”), Thomas Ford (“Why Not Here”), and John Playford (“La Cloche”), and then “4 Pieces in the Bag-Pipes Tuning” (c. 1660). My favorite of these was “La Cloche,” which had Savall playing as if he were two people split, one sawing away (albeit gracefully) on his bass viol, the other answering, beautifully, on another instrument, in this case the plucked viol. The title of the piece is “The Bell,” and it very much had that ringing sound to it, since the strings had been altered so that more of them were able to play open and thus bell out their sound to the hall (my apologies for not being able to write down the tuning). It was really a master composition for the viol, since it took such advantage of the fact that it, with its six (or seven) strings, is already such a resonant instrument, ready to echo itself to the hall.

The bag pipe pieces were set up so that one string became a drone song, wth the fourth and fifth strings switched. I found it amazing that Savall was able to keep up with the change in the notations for his instrument during this set, as the location of any given note seemed to have moved around quite a bit, and though I think he may have dropped one or two notes, overall I was amazed that he was able, during the course of about an hour, change the tuning of his viol about three times and not lose his place. He was right that the bag pipe songs were quite simple, clearly following old folk tunes (from the bagpipes of Lancashire – way back in the past!), but still, they were lush and lovely.

With our enthusiastic applause, Savall returned for not one but two encores, the first a Musette from Marais’s third book of music for viol – sophisticated and short and gorgeous. And he came back yet again, the final time for variations and improvs on “an ancient Breton tune,” which was so beautiful it brought tears to my eyes. My God, I’m a sap. It’s a pity I’m not a rich sap or I’d be off to Fontfroide – Savall will be performing there four times at the end of the month. Alas! Perhaps I will be so lucky as to see him one more time this year, perhaps in Edinburgh – he won’t be back in London. But it was lovely.

Thursday was such a switch in gears from this show it’s hard to describe! The Tiger Lillies are usually described as “dark cabaret,” and that seems fair enough. They reminded me a lot of Seattle’s Circus Contraption – probably something that would happen any time you got on stage wearing clown makeup and carrying an accordion – but they also had rather a lot of The Asylum Street Spankers, with their pared-down musical sense that owes so much to following the lyrics of the songs. The set they performed in the comfortable confines of the New Players’ Theatre was from “Shockheaded Peter,” apparently an adaptation of a German’s cautionary children’s tale done with puppets and this band at some point in the past. I found it all rather like a performance of the Ghastlycrumb Tinies: every song was a tale of some child who met a horrible fate. In the meantime, our three piece ensemble (falsetto clown vocals with accordion/piano, bass with theremin, and percussion, sometimes involving pans and/or stuffed bunnies and/or spitting on the audience) walked us through one wild tale after another, with great musicality that focused tightly on the lyrics. I was quite absorbed in the songs and found it all very fun – highly recommended for those with a dark sense of humor.

(The Tiger Lillies continue their run in London through May 23rd; Jordi Savall has come and gone, but you might be able to console yourself at the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music, possibly by watching Phantasm. I know I’ll be there.)

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