Jordi Savall's 'The Borgia Dynasty'

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The Borgias, the famously sinister Spanish noble clan who ruled Renaissance Rome and the Catholic Church, have been part of popular culture for centuries. But they’re now having a moment: Showtime recently launched “The Borgias” a $45 million, nine-episode TV series starring Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia, the Renaissance baron who schemed his way to the papacy [Watch the trailer]. Several recent novels tackle the subject including Sins of the House of Borgia by Sarah Bower and The Borgia Bride by Jeanne Kalogridis.

And from gamba player, arranger and conductor Jordi Savall comes "The Borgia Dynasty," a three-CD set and book that provides a revelatory survey of the noble family in music, from its multicultural origins in medieval Muslim Valencia through 16th-century Italy. It’s our Album of the Week.

Savall, who is known for his sweeping musicological projects, takes on the family that rose to be one of the most powerful in Italy, producing two Popes (Callistus III and Alexander VI), a Saint, and individuals whose names were enshrined in notorious tales involving adultery, simony, theft, rape, bribery, incest, and murder. Yet although their name is synonymous with Papal corruption, Savall points out that they did foster the arts, and were instrumental in the period’s explosive growth of culture. The three CDs here present a great variety of music, including Arabic themes, Guillaume Dufay, Josquin Des Prez and even a Credo in unum Deum attributed to Francisco Borja. The styles range from energetic instrumental numbers to ethereal choral polyphony.

A 244-page bound book, full of color, contains notes and translations in four languages and a bonus DVD contains a documentary on the recording, which won a Grammy for best small ensemble performance earlier this year.

Borgia Dynasty: Church and Power in the Renaissance
Jordi Savall, Montserrat Figueras,
La Capella Reial de Catalunya and Hespèrion XXI
Alia Vox
Available at

Q2's Album of the Week, from The New Canon:

Few things live up to their titles (we’ve yet to see someone bowled over by a ShamWow). However, there is something in the waters of NOW Ensemble’s sophomore release that truly does awaken the ear. A follow-up to their 2007 debut recording, Now, this cabal of Yale Music grads have once again mined new music’s talented collective of composers, including three of its own members, for a Whitman’s sampler of new music. And, lucky for us, everything in the box is a caramel.

Building on a single flute riff courtesy of Alex Sopp, NOW managing director Judd Greenstein’s Change opens the disc with a sprightly yet graceful flourish, gradually adding instrument to instrument and switching melodic dance partners without ever straying too far from Sopp’s bird-like call.

One singular mood doesn’t last long in Awake, however. The tone shifts drastically from the sweet and mellow sounds of Change to the haunting whirlwind of Sean Friar’s Velvet Hammer, slipping even further into crafty delirium in Missy Mazzoli’s hypnotic Magic with Everyday Objects, described by the composer herself as “a piece on the verge of a nervous breakdown.”

NOW’s own guitarist Mark Dancigers follows up this bout of sonic schizophrenia with the musical equivalent of a glass of mulled wine in Burst. Balancing the influences of Ali “Farka” Touré and Mozart, Dancigers gives us some warm guitar riffs with a cool twirl through textbook counterpoint. It’s mind soothing but never allows the listener to fall into complacency. David Crowell’s kinetic and pulsating Witing in the Rain for Snow picks up the thread in a churning piece evocative of mercurial early-winter showers. And if that’s not enough, Awake’s closing title track by ensemble member Patrick Burke is a triple espresso with an extra shot of Javanese gamelan for good measure.

Now Ensemble
New Amsterdam Records
Available at