On the night of August 10th, a famous Greek musician sat beside the Acheron, captivating his listeners with the sweet melodies played on his lyre. No, it was not Orpheus on the banks of the river separating the earthly world from Hades, but rather Sokratis Sinopoulos, the modern virtuoso of the Greek lyra, who joined together with the viola da gamba consort L’Achéron for the closing concert of the festival Les Riches Heures Musicales de la Rotonde.
The early music festival of Simiane-la-Rotonde stands out in the vast French festival landscape because of the coherence of its programming around a theme rich in musical possibilities. This 39th edition of the festival was devoted to “Orpheus, the Song of the World”, and the two weeks of concerts and associated events explored multiple dimensions of the legend of this most illustrious musician of Greek mythology. As every year, the festival organisers invited the best of the new generation of European ensembles specialising in early music : Les Timbres (with the baritone Marc Mauillon), Canticum novum, Comet musicke, Artifices and L’Achéron. All the concerts take place in the architectural jewel of the village: the Rotunda located on the first floor of the tower of the Château de Simiane, built in the 12th century. This Romanesque room decorated with sculpted heads creates a mysterious atmosphere conducive to listening, and the acoustics are ideal for these intimate concerts.
The programme “Lachrimæ Lyræ, tears of exile” is a project conceived by gambist Andreas Linos of the ensemble L’Achéron for a 2018 CD on the label Fuga Libera. The idea was to bring together two similar types of instruments that come from distant geographical and cultural contexts: the viola da gamba and the Greek lyra. The programme presented a mix of the repertoires of each instrument: the music of John Dowland (1563-1626) for viol consort and improvisations in a Greek style for the lyra.
The first part of the concert featured the pavanes Lachrimae or Seven Teares by Dowland. These pavanes are a series of variations on the theme “Flow my tears”, one of the most widely circulated tunes of the Renaissance. These variations served as the basis for improvisations by Sokratis Sinopoulos and the musicians of The Acheron, as if it were a jazz standard. In the second part, the improvisations alternated with seven galliards by Dowland.
In the hands Sokratis Sinopoulos, the Greek lyra becomes an instrument of great expressive potential. This instrument resembles a small three-stringed viola da gamba. Its sound box, made of a single block of wood, is smaller than that of the treble viol, the soprano instrument of the Acheron consort. As a result, its tone is tart, plaintive, even a little shrill at times. This pungent sound contrasted nicely with the sweetness of the viols of L’Achéron, an ensemble known for its perfect homogeneity of sound. Unlike the viol, the lyra has no frets on its fingerboard, which makes sliding between notes and quarter-tone playing possible. Sinopoulos makes us forget the fact that his instrument has only three strings; during his hypnotic improvisations, he plays pizzicati in the style of Paganini: plucking the strings with his left hand while he bows the strings with the right, giving the impression that one is hearing two musicians instead of one.
The members of L’Achéron (artistic director François Joubert-Caillet on treble viol, Andreas Linos on tenor viol, and Aude-Marie Piloz and Sarah van Oudenhove on bass viols) play with an ensemble spirit usually found in the best string quartets. In the bowed pavanes the sound of the ensemble approached that of an organ, and in the plucked galliards the effect resembled the playing of a lute.
In the thirteenth-century illuminated collection The Cantigas of Santa María, there is a curious illustration showing a Christian Spanish musician playing a lute alongside a Moorish musician playing an oud. This image suggests to us that in the end, the shared pleasure of musicians from different cultures and religions, linked by the similarity of their instruments, is in itself an ancient tradition. The happy collaboration between Sokratis Sinopoulos and the musicians of the ensemble L’Achéron is proof that after 900 years, this joy in musical sharing lives on.