Jordi Savall plays the viola da gamba, a cousin of the cello and an instrument that is heard almost exclusively in Early Music circles. So the fact that Savall has a worldwide reputation and a hit record (his soundtrack to the film Tous Les Matins Des Monde) points out how exceptional he and his longtime band are. In the 20th century, his group was known as Hesperion XX. Now, it’s Hesperion XXI, and they’ve taken some unusual journeys in recent years, with albums called Istanbul and Jerusalem that look at the ways music fed and reflected cultural exchange. But this recording might just be their most fascinating voyage yet. Hispania & Japan – Dialogues is a musical depiction of the life and travels of St. Francis Xavier, who went from Spain to India and eventually to Japan.
Savall and his extended musical company, which includes instruments from both the Indian and Japanese traditions, offer a group of 16th-century Spanish songs and hymns, including an “Ave Maria” that includes the sounds of the sitar, subtly doubling the chorus. Woven throughout the album are variations on a single theme: the chant “O Gloriosa Domina,” which appears in both its original version for voices and in arrangements for traditional Japanese instruments like the shakuhachi (flute), biwa (lute), and shinobue (a higher-pitched flute). In addition, there is a set of variations on the tune by the eminent Spanish composer Luis de Narvaez (“Diferencia II”) as well as a round dance version of the melody (“Alba & Rotundellas”). Hearing the song, which rapidly becomes familiar, going through its many permutations of color and culture is an excellent metaphor for Francis Xavier’s own missionary work in the East, which achieved at least some measure of success precisely because he adapted his message to acknowledge local customs and mores.