She may be the most improbable figure in history. Joan of Arc was a peasant (albeit a mayor’s daughter) who supped with royalty, a female who had the full panoply of the martial patriarchy at her beck and call, and a teenager to whom learned men grudgingly paid heed.
Her military exploits against the English, her part in the crowning of Charles VII, her trial and execution (in 1431) cannot be properly told, however, if the religious dimension is ignored. In our own time the voices she heard would be ascribed to mental instability. In her era she was more likely to be considered a visionary or heretic than merely a fake.
The fascination she held for her contemporaries continues. There have been countless books about her, some 20 feature films (plus many documentaries), plays, operas and oratorios (including Voices by Mark Isaacs, with libretto by the current writer).
Jordi Savall now adds this double CD and sumptuous book. It is part spoken-word drama interwoven with song and part aural documentary with incidental music. Savall draws on material he composed for the two halves of Jacques Rivett’s epic film Jeanne la Pucelle: Les Batailles and Les Prisons (which become the subtitles for his discs). He adds newly-penned material, and period music, including by Guillaume Dufay (1400-1474).
With the spoken-word sequences being in French, one has follow the book’s translations to fully appreciate Savall’s intent and be rewarded by the scale of his accomplishment. Louise Moaty plays a credibly young, bewildered, enraptured and wilful Joan in speeches mostly drawn from her trial, while the maze of male roles are shared by Rene Zosso and Manuel Weber.
As convincing as the performances are, Savall, like many before him, has overly concentrated on the linear narrative of Joan’s life (as extraordinary as it is) at the expense of more fully investigating her voices. These are realised in the music to some extent, including via Dufay’s gorgeous Veni Sancte spiritus, here sung by the late Monserrat Figueras and Maria Cristina Kiehr (sopranos) and Kai Wessel (countertenor) with organ accompaniment. But otherwise they are relegated to the story’s fringes, when they were paramount in the heroine’s own mind.
Other sacred music (including the actual piece that was sung as Joan marched off to raise the siege of Orleans) is performed by La Capella Reial de Catalunya, a choir which uses its superb accuracy of pitch to render the early music with a vibrant authenticity that transcends mere musicology.
Savall’s mutable Hesperion XXI orchestra is stacked with period wind, strings and percussion. The music he has written never descends to 15th-century pastiche, thanks to his depth of knowledge, the purity of his motives and the sheer beauty of the end result. To immerse yourself in this gorgeous, evocative music, alone, just skip the spoken-word tracks.