Tuesday, 5 November 2019

A final farewell: the Hilliard Ensemble & Jan Garbarek captured live on their final tour, Remember me, my dear

Remember me, my dear - Jan Garbarek, Hilliard Ensemble - ECM Records
Komitas, Garbarek, Kedrov, Pärt,Le Rouge, Perotin, Hildegard von Bingen, Brumel; Hilliard Ensemble, Jan Garbarek; ECM
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 November 2019 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
For one final time, the Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Garbarek re-visit the wonderful sound world of Officium, here recorded live on their farewell tour in 2014

It is over 25 years since Manfred Eicher (of ECM Records) brought the Hilliard Ensemble together with the Norwegian saxophonist, Jan Garbarek. The result was a successful but at first sight, unlikely, marriage and their disc Officium was a sensation, it combined the Hilliard Ensemble's performances of early polphony with Garberek's evocative saxophone. But, from the start, the members of the Hilliard Ensemble never regarded themselves as singing in an Early Music group. When I heard one of the ensemble's farewell concerts, at the Spitalfields Festival in 2013 [see my review], they talked about how from the earlies days the group's repertoire had encompassed a wide variety of styles from Early to Contemporary, but that their early recordings had all been of Early music which got them the Early Music tag. So a collaboration with a contemporary performing artist was not so strange, and there is a very vocal quality to Garbarek's playing. There were three discs made, Officium, Mnemosyne and Officium Novum. These three were all made in the studio.

But for the Hilliard Ensemble and saxophonist Jan Garbarek's final disc together, recorded on the Officium farewell tour in 2014, they have recorded a disc live.
Issued on ECM Records, Remember me my dear features the Hilliards and Garbarek in a wide range of music from Hildegard of Bingen and Perotin, to Komitas and Nikolai N Kedrov to Arvo Pärt and Jan Garbarek.

The Hilliard Ensemble’s David James, Steven Harrold, Roger Covey-Crump, Gordon Jones with Jan Garbarek, far right, in 2014. (Photo: Daniel Vass/ECM Records )
The Hilliard Ensemble’s David James, Steven Harrold, Roger Covey-Crump, Gordon Jones with Jan Garbarek, far right,
in 2014. (Photo: Daniel Vass/ECM Records )
This is very much the same recipe as before, but the ingredients are subtly different. Much of the vocal material is edgier. The original  Officium veered a little bit into the sort of New Age spiritual territory which led to monks singing chant making hit records. Here, the music sometimes has bite to it, whether early, late or Contemporary. And, of course, the performers are 25 years older. The voices of the Hilliard Ensemble (David James, Rogers Covey-Crump, Steven Harrold, Gordon Jones) are more lived in, more (dare one say it) frayed at the edges, but there is also 25 years more experience performing together, deeper understanding and willingness to go further. The vocal performances are looser, the group is now far more comfortable if not improvising then giving the vocal lines more freedom to match Garbarek's improvisations.



David James' counter-tenor voice (likened by one commentator to a weeping angel) has become more unashamedly itself and this is not a disc to listen to if you find James' vocal style difficult (as I know some people do). It is not a conventional approach to this music, but in terms of the ensemble's way of re-creating ancient music in modern style, it works well. And James' voice, on the disc, often develops an instrumental quality to it which matches Garbarek's saxophone.

The disc opens with a piece by the Armenian priest, musicologist and composer Komitas, though in fact what we first hear is a long saxophone solo from Garbarek, leading into Komitas' Ov zarmanali in which the harmonies are far from comfortable, and later in the disc we have Orthodox music from another area with Nikolai Kedrov's Litany, in which the gently repetitive choral refrain separates long solo chant sections, except here the second two have been replaced by Garbarek's improvisations, a fascinating collaboration of old and new.

The way the group and Garbarek interacts is fascinating. In some pieces, such as the anonymous Procurans odium, the repetitive vocals form a base for Garbarek's free flowing improvisation, having established the vocal part first it then becomes more an accompaniment than partner. Yet in others, such as Garbarek's own Allting finns, Garbarek's soprano saxophone simply forms a top line over the others to create a five-part texture. Perotin's busy Alleluia nativitas with its long melismatic passages is quite a surprise as Garbarek is able to join the four voices and craft a fifth line. The final way they interact is that Garbarek's improvisations come at pause points in the music, in effect creating a dialogue.

It is in Hildegard of Bingen's O ignis spiritus that we really sense the creative use of the space. For much of the disc the voices are recorded quite closely with Garbarek's saxophone at more of a distance, and the acoustic of the Chiesa della Collegiata dei SS. Pietro e Stefano forms a halo around, but in the Hildegard we have a wonderfully multilayered effect, a tenor solo over a drone which forms the basis of the Hildegard, a middle distance answering line from David James and more distant still Garbarek's saxophone. The result isn't just a contemporary re-working of Hildegard, but it uses the acoustic space in imaginative ways and makes you realise how evocative the live Officium experience could be.

It had to be admitted that, in the Early Music, there are occasional vocal limitations, a tendency to dwell on each individual note rather than giving a true seamless line, so that it is probably not sensible to compare tracks such as the anonymous Sanctus, which feels rather effortful, with similar pieces from the original Officium disc.

The Hilliard Ensemble does one track without Garbarek, and intense account of Arvo Part's Most Holy Mother of God, a highly concentrated performance which, it has to be admitted, is also not without a sense of effort. And Garbarek adds his own striking solo We are the stars.

The accompanying booklet features essays by Hilliard Ensemble member Gordon Jones, Paul Griffiths and Steve Lake, and there are plenty of photographs. There are, however, no texts so you have to listen to the music blind.

For those who have, perhaps, not heard the group before, this is not necessarily a disc to start the exploration, you have to make allowances in the balance of age and experience versus sheer vocal beauty. But, for those who are already admirers and converts, there is plenty to enjoy on this disc and it forms a fitting conclusion to the Hilliard's journey. That it is live, and audibly so as there are audience coughs, gives it the sort of presence which studio recording does not. Officium was a live experience, each venue was different, each time the interaction between the Hilliard Ensemble and Garbarek would be different, and this recording catches it on the wing.



Armenian traditional, Komitas (1869-1935) - Ov zarmanali [06:00]
Anonymous - Procurans odium [03:23]
Jan Garbarek (born 1947) - Allting finns [04:00]
Nikolai N. Kedrov (1871-1940) - Litany [09:00]
Anonymous - Dostoino est [03:16]
Anonymous - Sanctus [07:50]
Arvo Pärt (born 1935) - Most Holy Mother Of God [04:11]
Anonymous - Procedentum sponsum [04:17]
Guillaume le Rouge (fl1450-1463) - Se je fayz deuil [06:17]
Pérotin (fl 1200) - Alleluia nativitas [05:09]
Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) - O ignis spiritus [07:29]
Jan Garbarek - We are the stars [05:19]
Antoine Brumel (c1460-1512/13) - Agnus Dei [06:10]
Anonymous (16th century Scotland) - Remember me, my dear [05:13]
Hilliard Ensemble (David James, Rogers Covey-Crump, Steven Harrold, Gordon Jones)
Jan Garbarek (soprano saxophone)
Recorded live October 2014, Chiesea della Collegiata dei SS. Pietro e Stefano, RSI Rere Due
ECM New Series ECM2625 / 487971 1CD
Support Planet Hugill by buying this disc from Amazon.

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