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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’.

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