A final farewell: The Hilliard Ensemble at the Wigmore Hall

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
Anonymous Marvel not Joseph
Anonymous Lullay, lullow
15th-century English carol Ecce quod natura
Heiner Goebbels Excursion into the Mountains

The Hilliard Ensemble

The Hilliard Ensemble has been together for forty years, making their final farewell concert at London’s Wigmore Hall something of a momentous occasion. Though its members have changed over the years, this all-male vocal quartet have remained champions of both early music and works  by living composers throughout their extensive performing career.

The Hilliard Ensemble Photo: Marco Borggreve

The Hilliard Ensemble. Photo: Marco Borggreve

The programming for Saturday night’s concert reflected this, ranging from the earliest surviving music to contemporary pieces. The evening opened with Pérotin’s Viderunt omnes, which, according to the programme notes, is the first four-voice work (though omitting to say that it is the first known surviving four-voice work is rather misleading). The work is highly melismatic, meaning that many notes can be written for a single syllable. The first syllable, for example, ‘vi’ lasts for eighteen bars. The Hilliards were in no rush to get through the words and indulged in their own sound.

Their sound is certainly distinctive. In their pre-concert talk, the Hilliards explained that they never aimed for a ‘Hilliard sound’. They were, however, the first professional group to sing with minimal vibrato. What is most astonishing is that though each voice maintains its own strange eccentricities, they still blend as an ensemble.

It would be easy for the Hilliards to get carried away with their sound and pay little attention to the words they are singing. Yet when a greater subservience to the text was required, they were eager to bring out the narrative. It was the story in Roger Marsh’s Death of Yorick, and the dialogue between Jesus and the sinner in Sheryngham’s Ah, gentle Jesu that was most important. As old cathedral choir singers, the Hilliards have tended to avoid dramatic works. But their performance of Excursion into the Mountains, an extract from Heiner Goebbels’ music drama I went to the house but did not enter, offered a glimpse of what might have been if the Hilliards had taken another direction. They sung from memory (something they admitted they rarely do) and enjoyed the more direct contact with the audience.

The concert would not have been complete without Arvo Pärt. The Hilliards have been long-standing collaborators with the Estonian composer who is known for his stripped-down, minimalist music. Pärt’s music may be simple, but the Hilliards were wonderfully resonant in And One of the Pharisees… with some incredibly low notes from baritone Gordon Jones. Dissonances added colour and were satisfyingly jarring. Most Holy Mother of God consists of a plea to Mary to ‘save us’, repeated eighteen times, from which the Hilliards drew considerable variety from. Though there were changes in dynamic, these were kept subtle and were never overdone. In this prayer to the mother of God it was not the Hilliards nor Pärt’s music, but Mary who was the focus.

A single final farewell concert can hardly do justice to a prolific career spanning forty years. Though it was a momentous occasion, the concert itself was not. The Hilliards are not suited to nostalgia. They are at their best when working with composers, or thinking of interesting way of performing very old repertoire, rather than reminiscing on their past achievements. The audience were nevertheless were rapturous. And so they should be, for this was their final chance to celebrate those very achievements.

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