This mammoth tribute to the great Renaissance philosopher Erasmus could well be considered a folly (at least from a business point of view) in these times of global economic woes. Encased in a lavishly illustrated hardcover book are six discs; three of them containing the complete program, which includes both music and narrated excerpts (in French) from the works of Erasmus and his contemporaries, while the other three discs contain the music alone. A voucher accompanying the book allows the purchaser to download the narrated program in an impressive six other languages of choice, including English, from the Alia Vox website.

It is no surprise that the first disc entitled ‘Praise of Folly’ pays homage not only to Erasmus’s great work of that name, but also to the famous dance music tradition of ‘La Folia’. The second disc, ‘Time of Reflections’ surveys events surrounding the earlier life of Erasmus while the third disc, ‘Time of Confrontation’ chronicles the advent of Machiavelli, the Reformation, and the death of Erasmus. The literary and musical breadth of the program, conceived by Jordi Savall and his late wife Montserrat Figueras, is monumental. By using recent recordings as well as some from as far back as 1988, we are given a valuable overview of the work of Savall and his various groups – work that has immeasurably enriched this generation’s appreciation of early music.

Musical highlights are almost too numerous to mention. The haunting, mellifluous voice of Figueras, suavely accompanied by Andrew Lawrence-King’s harp, sets the bar high early on. Empathetic performances of works by Josquin and Dufay rub shoulders with colourful Ottoman and Sephardic music to portray the political melting pot of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Music by composers such as Gesualdo, Morales, Isaac and Tye represent both sides of the Reformation’s religious divide. Savall’s trademark use of drums and other percussion in instrumental numbers forms a powerful contrast with some plangent unaccompanied vocal outpourings such as Appenzeller’s Plangite Pierides (a ‘planctus’ on the death of Erasmus) or Josquin’s famous Déploration on the death of Ockeghem.

The choice of literary texts is another fascinating aspect of this enterprise, ranging from Erasmus and his friend Thomas More to Machiavelli, Luther and Stefan Zweig. In addition to spoken and sung texts and translations, there are five accompanying essays and an introduction from Savall. This is truly a banquet to savour!

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