Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Claude Debussy and Lili Boulanger commemorated at the Proms

Two French commemorations - ‘anniversaries’ always seems the wrong word - and surely is - here: the centenary of the deaths of Claude Debussy and Lili Boulanger.

Pique Dame in Salzburg

It was emeritus night at the Salzburg Festival with 75 year old maestro Mariss Jansons conducting 77 year old stage director Hans Neuenfels production about Pushkin’s 87 year old countess known as the Pique Dame.

Lohengrin at Bayreuth

Three electrifying moments and the world is forever changed.

Salome in Salzburg

A Romeo Castellucci production is always news, it is even bigger news just now in Salzburg where Lithuanian soprano Asmik Grigorian has made her debut as the fifteen year-old Salome.

Vaughan Williams Dona nobis pacem - BBC Prom 41

Prom 41 at the Royal Albert Hall, London, with Edward Gardner conducting the BBCSO in Vaughan Williams's Dona nobis pacem, Elgar's Cello Concerto (Jean-Guihen Queyras) and Lili Boulanger . Extremely perceptive performances that revealed deep insight, far more profound than the ostensible "1918" theme

John Wilson brings Broadway to South Kensington: West Side Story at the BBC Proms

There were two, equal ‘stars’ of this performance of the authorised concert version of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story at the Royal Albert Hall: ‘Lenny’ himself, whose vibrant score - by turns glossy and edgy - truly shone, and conductor John Wilson, who made it gleam, and who made us listen afresh and intently to every coloristic detail and toe-tapping, twisting rhythm.

Prom 36: Webern, Mahler, and Wagner

One of the joys of writing regularly – sometimes, just sometimes, I think too regularly – about performance has been the transformation, both conscious and unconscious, of my scholarship.

Prom 33: Thea Musgrave, Phoenix Rising, and Johannes Brahms, Ein deutsches Requiem, op.45

I am not sure I could find much of a connection between the two works on offer here. They offered ‘contrast’ of a sort, I suppose, yet not in a meaningful way such as I could discern.

Gianni Schicchi by Oberlin in Italy

It’s an all too rare pleasure to see Puccini’s only comedy as a stand alone opera. And more so when it is a careful production that uncovers the all too often overlooked musical and dramatic subtleties that abound in Puccini’s last opera.

Sarah Connolly and Joseph Middleton journey through the night at Cadogan Hall

The mood in the city is certainly soporific at the moment, as the blistering summer heat takes its toll and the thermometer shows no signs of falling. Fittingly, mezzo-soprano Dame Sarah Connolly and pianist Joseph Middleton presented a recital of English song settings united by the poetic themes of night, sleep, dreams and nightmares, juxtaposing masterpieces of the early-twentieth-century alongside new works by Mark-Anthony Turnage and Australian composer Lisa Illean, and two ‘long-lost’ songs by Britten.

Vanessa: Keith Warner's Glyndebourne production exposes truths and tragedies

“His child! It must not be born!” Keith Warner’s new production of Samuel Barber’s Vanessa for Glyndebourne Festival Opera makes two births, one intimated, the other aborted, the driving force of the tragedy which consumes two women, Vanessa and her niece Erika, rivals for the same young man, Anatol, son of Vanessa’s former lover.

Rollicking Rossini in Santa Fe

Santa Fe Opera welcomed home a winningly animated production of L’Italiana in Algeri this season that utterly delighted a vociferously responsive audience.

Rock solid Strauss Salomé- Salzburg

Richard Strauss Salomé from the Salzburg Festival, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst, a powerful interpretation of an opera which defies easy answers, performed and produced with such distinction thast it suceeds on every level. The words "Te saxa Loquuntur" (The stones are speaking to you) are projected onto the stage. Salzburg regulars will recognize this as a reference to the rock foundations on which part of the city is built, and the traditions of excellence the Festival represents. In this opera, the characters talk at cross-purposes, hearing without understanding. The phrase suggests that what might not be explicitly spoken might have much to reveal.

Prom 26: Dido and Cleopatra – Queens of Fascination

In this, her Proms debut, Anna Prohaska offered something akin to a cantata of two queens, complementary and contrasted: Dido and Cleopatra. Returning in a sense to her ‘early music’ roots – her career has always been far richer, more varied, but that world has always played an important part – she collaborated with the Italian ‘period’ ensemble, Il Giardino Armonico and Giovanni Antonini.

Parsifal: Munich Opera Festival

And so, this year’s Munich Opera Festival and this year’s Bavarian State Opera season came to a close with everyone’s favourite Bühnenweihfestspiel, Parsifal, in the final outing this time around for Pierre Audi’s new production.

Santa Fe: Atomic Doesn’t Quite Ignite

What more could we want than having Peter Sellars re-imagine his acclaimed staging of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic at the renowned Santa Fe Opera festival?

Santa Fe: Continuing a Proud Strauss Tradition

Santa Fe Opera has an enduring reputation for its Strauss, and this season’s enjoyable Ariadne auf Naxos surely made John Crosby smile proudly.

From the House of the Dead: Munich Opera Festival

Frank Castorf might have been born to direct From the House of the Dead. In this, his third opera project - or better, his third opera project in the opera house, for his Volksbühne Meistersinger must surely be reckoned with, even by those of us who did not see it - many of his hallmarks and those of his team are present, yet without the slightest hint of staleness, of anything other than being reborn for and in the work.

Haydn's Orlando Paladino in Munich

Should you not like eighteenth-century opera very much, if at all, and should you have no or little interest in Haydn either, this may have been the production for you. The fundamental premise of Axel Ranisch’s staging of Orlando Paladino seems to have been that this was a work of little fundamental merit, or at least a work in a genre of little such merit, and that it needed the help of a modern medium - perhaps, it might even be claimed, an equivalent medium - to speak to a contemporary audience.

Donizetti's 'Regiment' Ride the Highway: Opera della Luna at Wilton's Music Hall

'The score … is precisely one of those works that neither the composer nor the public takes seriously. The harmony, melody, rhythmic effects, instrumental and vocal combinations; it’s music, if you wish, but not new music. The orchestra consumes itself in useless noises…'

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

The Hilliard Ensemble [Photo by Marco Borggreve]
22 Dec 2014

The Hilliard Ensemble: Farewell Concert at Wigmore Hall

Forty-one years is a long time for any partnership to be sustained and to flourish — be it musical, commercial or marital! And, given The Hilliard Ensemble’s ongoing reputation as one of the world’s finest a cappella groups, noted for their performances of works dating from the 11 th century to the present day, it must have been a tough decision to call an end to more than four decades of superlative music-making.

The Hilliard Ensemble: Farewell Concert at Wigmore Hall

Above: The Hilliard Ensemble [Photo by Marco Borggreve]

A review by Claire Seymour

 

While countertenor David James is the sole survivor from the original four-man line-up, the current quartet of James, tenors Rogers Covey-Crump and Steven Harrold, and baritone Gordon Jones have been singing together since 1998, and this Farewell Concert at the Wigmore Hall — an occasion for both poignancy and celebration — confirmed that they are bowing out while still at the top.

Performing music from Pérotin to Pärt, from anonymous medieval carols to Roger Marsh’s 2013 Poor Yorick, the Hilliards gave a masterclass in musical and textual precision; not for nothing are they named after the Elizabethan miniaturist, Nicholas Hilliard, whose attention to pictorial detail they have ever aimed to replicate in musical contexts. But, more remarkable even than the accuracy and clarity — every word perfectly enunciated — was the innate, shared musicality of the four singers; the rises and falls, ebbs and flows were instinctively felt and mesmerising in their assured simplicity and directness. It is this ‘oneness’ that produces such pure, entrancing vocal beauty.

In a recent Guardian article, Gordon Jones remarked that the programme for the group’s Farewell Concert was ‘a bit unstructured — that’s unusual for us. But taken together it represents much that has been important to us, and to the people who have been close to us and who will be in the audience. We were also keen to include a few pieces written for us by composers who will also be in attendance’. The programme may have been eclectic but during this valedictory evening it was the Hilliards’ ability to reveal the modernity of Pérotin’s plainsong, with its complex rhythms and striking dissonances, and to make music from the twenty-first century speak with the sincerity and openness of Gregorian chant which underlined the ensemble’s range and accomplishment.

We began, fittingly, with the first-known notated composition for four voices, Pérotin’sViderunt Omnes, a Christmas gradual: the lowest voice — the cantus firmus — presents that original plainchant in extremely long notes, while the other voices blossom in elaborate melismatic polyphony.A remarkably poised balance was achieved between the elongated syllables of the bass and the complex decorative counterpoint above; and there was a wonderful clarity with each resolution of the increasing dissonance before the change from one syllable of the text to the next, creating a sense of spiritual affirmation. Indeed, the short text announces that God has arrived in ‘All the ends of the world’ and the Lord has ‘declared his salvation’, and there was a spirit of exultation in the buoyant rhythms and driving imitative points. Interestingly, the clashing overtones foreshadowed the ‘tintinnabulation’ of Arvo Pärt, heard later in the evening.

The Hilliards have commissioned many new compositions, adding greatly to the richness of the repertoire for four high male voices. During a 1995 residency at the summer school which they established, Piers Hellawell offered the group settings of passages from Nicholas Hilliard’s The Art of Limning, published in 1570, which explore the expressive nature of colour. The text of ‘True beautie’ strives to capture the power of colour to make objects appear transparent, a power evoked by the Hilliards’ ravishing tone; the scrupulously rendered interweaving melodies of ‘Saphire’ were a musical match for the power of the painter, a ‘cunning artificer’, who ‘helpeth nature and addeth beauty’.

In contrast to such intricacy, the music of Arvo Pärt offered simple artlessness. Pärt’s And One of the Pharisees, a setting of a long-text from the gospel of Luke for baritone, tenor and countertenor, contrasted homophonic, monosyllabic chanting recounting the parable of Christ’s forgiveness of a sinful woman with the freer solo-voice direct speech of Christ and the Pharisee.Most Holy Mother of God, for 4 voices, composed for the group in 2003, their thirtieth year, is a repetitive plea to the Blessed Virgin to ‘save us’. In both works, the Hilliards captured the intense liturgical candour of Pärt’s minimalist idiom, while in the Most Holy Mother they use the tensions in the syncopated opening motif to create energy and momentum within the meditative medium.

In December 2013, celebrating their 40th anniversary, the ensemble premiered Roger Marsh’s Poor Yorick, a setting of the description of the death of Yorick from Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Here they presented the long central section of the three-part work, ‘Death of Yorick’, Rogers Covey-Crump singing affectingly as the dying Yorick while Gordon Jones assumed the role of Eugenius, whose tearful addresses to his dying friend at times took a wry turn, as with the consolation, ‘I declare I know not, Yorick, how to part with thee, and would gladly flatter my hopes … that there is still enough left of thee to make a bishop, and that I may live to see it’. The Hilliards enjoyed the humour and the theatricality of the work, expressed through Marsh’s rich harmonies.

But, it was in the earlier repertoire that the singers excelled, elevating seemingly simple compositions such as‘There is no rose’, ‘Lullay, lullow’ and ‘Ecce quod natura’ — anonymous carols for two and three voices — to high musical stature. Most striking of all was the eloquence of ‘Ah, gentle Jesu’ by Sheryngham, a composer about whose life and work nothing is known. A candid dialogue between the crucified Christ (two low voices) and a remorseful sinner (two high voices), this work was beautifully soft and warm.

The Farewell concluded with ‘Excursion into the Mountains’ from the austere music drama I went to the house but did not enter by Heiner Goebbels, a mediation on the passing of life which was commissioned by the Hilliards and first performed in 2008. ‘Excursion in the Mountains’ presents a complete short story by Kafka in which a writer reflects on the negatives and absences in his life, desiring the freedom of the mountains where ‘throats become free!’ The spirited music ironically contrasts with the quizzical text, and the work ended, appropriately, with the jovial exclamation: ‘It’s a wonder that we don’t burst into song.’

Jones, in the afore-mentioned interview, remarked prior to the event, ‘As we approach the final performance I’ve really no idea how we will feel on the night. We’ve sung more than 100 concerts around the world this year, and throughout, we’ve resisted as strongly as we could calling it a “farewell tour”. That would have seemed so maudlin and mawkish … I just hope we can get through everything — some of the pieces are quite tricky — especially if it turns out to be a bit of a Kleenex evening.’

In fact, this was not an evening for tears, just gladness and joy that we have had the opportunity to experience such wonderful music-making, a mood perfectly captured by the single encore which tenderly slipped away into the silence, the Scottish song, ‘Remember Me My Dear’.

Claire Seymour


Performers and programme:

The Hilliard Ensemble: David James countertenor, Rogers Covey-Crump tenor, Steven Harrold tenor, Gordon Jones baritone. Wigmore Hall, London, Saturday 20 th December 2014.

Pérotin — Viderunt omnes; Piers Hellawell — ‘True beautie’, ‘Saphire’; Arvo Pärt — And One of the Pharisees; Roger Marsh — ‘Death of Yorick’; Sheryngham — ‘Ah, gentle Jesu’; Arvo Pärt — Most Holy Mother of God; Anonymous — ‘There is no rose’, ‘Marvel not Joseph’, ‘Lullay, lullow’; 15th-century English carol — ‘Ecce quod natura’; Heiner Goebbels, ‘Excursion in the Mountains’.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):