Thursday 12 December 2013

The Hilliard Ensemble's 40th birthday party

The Hilliard Ensemble - photo credit Marco Borggreve
The Hilliard Ensemble - credit Marco Borggreve
40 years to the day, the members of the Hilliard Ensemble celebrated their first ever concert with another concert, on Wednesday 11 December 2013 this time at St Leonard's Church, Shoreditch as part of the Shoreditch Winter Festival. For the concert the four current members of the Hilliard Ensemble (David James, Steven Harrold, Rogers Covey-Crump and Gordon Jones) were joined by four former members (Paul Elliott, John Nixon, John Potter and Errol Girdlestone) for a concert celebrating the ensemble's 40 year history.

The first half was a typical Hilliard Ensemble assemblage, built around the seven great O Antiphons, the magnificat antiphons used at Vespers for the last seven days of Advent; wonderful pieces of plainchant which evocatively anticipate the coming of Christ. Each O Antiphon was followed by a pair of verses (one polyphony and one plainchant) from the Magnificat secundi toni by Tomas Luis de Victoria (c1548 - 1611). Woven into this mix were four motets. The Ave Maria of Josquin Des Prez (c1440 - 1521), Exordium quaruplate from Codex Specialnik (a volume which dates to 1546 and was used by the Protestant congregation in Prague), O magnum mysterium by Pomponio Nenna (1556 - 1618) and they opened with Viderunt Omnes by Perotin (fl.c.1200). The second half paid tribute to the group's first concert by including a work from that concert, Britten's Canticle IV: Journey of the Magi. To this were added motets by William Byrd (C1540 - 1623), Descendit de coelis and John Sheppard (c1515 - 1558), Laudate pueri Dominum and two 15th century carols. The programme finished with the premiere of Robert Marsh's Poor Yorick which had been commissioned for the occasion and was performed by all eight singers. Marsh was the composer of Il Cor Tristo which the group recorded on their latest disc (see my review)

The evening started with the Perotin, sung by John Potter with three current members of the group (David James, Steven Harrold and Gordon Jones). The result vividly vibrant, emphasising the amazing timelessness of Perotin's music. Not for the first time during the evening, I was impressed with the apparently effortless communication between members of the group.

The great O Antiphons were sung by all singers, providing a lovely firm line, in robust yet flexible chant. As each antiphon was followed by two verses of the Victoria Magnificat sung by the present members of the ensemble, there were a couple of occasions when the transition seemed to cause a harmonic bump. The Victoria was very much the Hilliard Ensemble on current form. Though the piece seemed to push them to the limits of the possible, there was a great deal to enjoy.

Josquin's Ave Maria sets a very full text (far longer than the modern Ave Maria), in a setting which is rather austere but makes a lot of use of imitation. The four present members of the ensemble made a quite a strong sound, though the piece seemed to take counter-tenor David James to the very upper limits of his comfort zone.

The performances from the group were not showy. Vivid and full voiced, but you very much had to go to them; there was no show business, and no attempt to dramatise. We simply had four (or eight) men in suits at music stands. You had to pay attention, but it was well worth it. As I have said, as with an established string quartet the communication between the four singers was seemingly effortless. The sound was always strong and vibrant, a way of singing which works well with their chosen repertoire.

Exordium quadruplate from the Codex Specialnik was a remarkable piece, each line sang a different text with the intention of sounding a four-fold exordium 'in the prophetic manner'. The current ensemble gave the piece a vividly dramatic, very up-front performance. The final motet was Nenna's O Magnum Mysterium a slow, powerful piece which combined homophony with imitative sections and which saw the group performing with something less than the perfection we normally expect. The final music of the first half, however, was the last O antiphon, completing the cycle gloriously.

Part two opened with William Byrd's Descendit de coelis from his Gradualia, sung by David James with Gordon Jones and the four past members, Paul Elliott, John Nixon, John Potter and Errol Girdlestone. (It rather reminded me of the moment of Lord Berners' ballet The Wedding Bouquet in which the bridegroom dances a tango with all his ex-girlfriends.) John Potter and Rogers Covey-Crump (tenors past and present) then sang the anonymous carol Lullay lullow, a rather touching piece very expressively done, especially the way the work uses the open fourths and fifths in the harmony.

Then David James, Rogers Covey-Crump and Gordon Jones sang Britten's Journey of the Magi with Errol Girdlestone playing the piano. What was magical about this performance was the amazing blend of the voices in the tutti passages, the singers experience singing together really counting. Though the counter-tenor part was written for James Bowman, it is clear that Britten must also have had Alfred Deller's voice in his inner ear. James's rather distinctive voice is perhaps closer to Deller's than Bowman's is, and the part fitted James's voice like a glove. The solo contributions were admirable, but the ensembles such as 'This was folly' were pure magic, and the unison passages in the closing pages very powerful indeed. Errol Girdlestone made a strong fourth partner at the piano.

Then David James and Gordon Jones sang another anonymous carols, There is no rose, simple but lovely.

The four part Laudate pueri Dominum by John Sheppard was sung by six singers (David James and Errol Girdlestone sat out), with the singers dropping in and out so that each section was sung by a different group of four. Without a counter-tenor on top, the resulting mix had a lovely dark quality.

Finally Roger Marsh's commission for all eight singers, Poor Yorick. The work sets text from Laurence Sterne's 1759 comic novel Tristram Shandy. Marsh sets the description of the death of Yorick, a country vicar, framed by Sterne's own comment on mortality from the novel 'Time wastes too fast'. The opening and closing section of the work combined 'Time wastes too fast', sung to Marsh's familiar homophonic, flexible recitative over a moving bass setting Yorrick's motto, De vanitate mundi et fuga saeculi The opening section was sung by Gordon Jones with the four past member of the group.

Then in the long middle section the present members, sang Marsh's setting of Yorick's death. Again Marsh used the flexible homophonic recitative, but with stand out moments for Covey-Crump as the dying Yorick and Jones as his friend Eugenius.  The group made the narrative wonderfully theatrical and rather funny, combined with Marsh's rather evocative harmonies. The opening section then returned, this time for the full group. A fascinating work which I would like to hear again, perhaps with the auditorium lights high enough so that I can study the text whilst listening.

This was a slightly sad, but celebratory evening. There is no denying the passage of time in the singers voices, but their artistry and understanding of their chosen repertoire remains paramount and we can look forward to a year of concerts before they retire.

Before the concert there was a discussion with present and former members of the group. David James recalled how the group started partly as a result of friendships made when studying at Oxford. Initially Errol Girdlestone was the bass, also playing keyboards so that they also sang solos and duets, including Victorian parlour songs. From the first the group never regarded itself as an early music group, after all in 1973 Britten's Journey of the Magi was still contemporary music. But record companies were less inclined to mix early and contemporary repertoire, and the group's recordings were of early music.

The group's distinctive line up (with two tenors on the middle lines) meant that they had to go searching for repertoire and commissioning it. Though James admitted that they had had some composers turning them down, because the requirements for quite a narrowness of range and two equal middle parts were too restricting. They have though commissioned an enormous amount of music including developing a relationship with Arvo Part (which dates back to the period before he was well known). Their first composers competition attracted over 100 entries (myself included as it happens).

During the the group's 40 year existence there have only been ever 9 singers (the ninth Paul Hillier was unable to be present owing to a prior engagement).

The Spitalfields Music Winter Festival continues until 17 December, further information from their website.

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