One of three ensembles led by Catalan viola da gambist Jordi Savall, Hesperion XXI is devoted to the interpretation of deeply rooted early musical traditions. Released on his Alia Vox label near the close of 2011, Mare Nostrum could be seen to exist near the very center and apex of Savall's massive discography. The project was completed only months before the passing of his wife and longtime collaborator, vocalist Montserrat Figueras. It stands as her parting prayer for tolerance, peace, and reconciliation between peoples and their nations, not despite but rather in celebration of their contrasting cultures and intermingled religions. The melodies in this collection and the individuals who interpret them come from an assortment of lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. Drawing upon multiple oral traditions and an intensively researched medieval manuscript repertory, Hesperion XXI present a gently inspiring blend of traditional melodies, calmly played and sung with elegance and improvised precision. If the prevailing mood is ruminative, there are many centuries of shared history on which to ruminate. Mare Nostrum literally means "Our Sea". While the phrase is traceable to Roman hubris following the Punic Wars and has since been abused by nationalists and other extremists who misconstrue the concept behind the word "our", Savall, Figueras, and Hesperion XXI propose a more humane and realistic application. As a "meeting point between different peoples", the Mediterranean has long served as "space for dialogue" between Christians, Muslims, and Jews.
Figueras was an ethereal soprano and multi-instrumentalist whose spirit and methodology enabled musicians and listeners to enter into a state of grace. Mare Nostrum also features Turkish singer Gursoy Dinçer and the Israeli Andalusian Orchestra's resident solo vocalist Lior Elmaleh. The 28 selections include the Sephardic air, the Berber berçeuse, and the Turkish gazel or ghazal. Here are lullabies from Egypt, Greece, Morocco, Andalusia, and Jerusalem, and traditional airs from Tunisia, Bulgaria, Catalonia, Istanbul, Agadir, Rhodes, and Sarajevo. Mare Nostrum transcends all national boundaries while rendering prevalent notions of entertainment more or less meaningless. The listener should reserve time and space for the playback experience, so as to fully engage with the 11th century Hebrew song and the 14th century Italian stamping dance or istanpitta. Make time for an improvisation on the Song of Solomon and the setting of a Cabalistic text from the Sephardic Book of Creation. The collection closes with a setting of verses by contemporary Spanish poet, translator, and educator Manuel Forcano. It features Ferran Savall, who sings and plays guitar.
Anyone investing in a copy of Mare Nostrum will want to assign it a special place among the most treasured tomes on the bookshelf, for the two CDs come in a 450-page hardbound book printed in ten languages, richly illustrated with centuries-old artwork and illumined cartography, as well as a schematic chronology of historic events extending from the 8th to 6th centuries BCE through 2010-2011. Context for the music is provided through intelligent and insightful texts by eight different essayists, including Savall himself. This is his seventh CD book. The spirit embodied in Savall and Figueras' Mare Nostrum is most beautifully articulated in this passage by French-Lebanese novelist Amin Maalouf: "If we are to restore some hope to our disoriented humanity, we must go beyond a mere dialogue of cultures and beliefs towards a dialogue of souls. As we stand at the beginning of the 21st century, that is the irreplaceable mission of art."