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.

Prom 67: Järvi, Jansen and the Orchestre de Paris

Royal Albert Hall organ

Organist Thierry Escaich must be feeling rather pleased with himself. Single-handedly overpowering an orchestra – granted with the help of the massive Royal Albert Hall organ – is not something that many can boast of. However, even if a finale of Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 in C minor “Organ” played on the second largest organ in the country is inevitably going to steal the show, Paavo Järvi and his Orchestre de Paris still devote a considerable amount of expressive energy to the rest of the evening’s programme.

In complete contrast to its close, the concert opens with silence. Arvo Pärt writes in three beats of rest before the first striking of the bell at the start of his Cantus in Memoriam of Benjamin Britten. Although the music does gradually build, this is a work of understated serenity that is never going to be that loud. The huge space of the Albert Hall threatens to overwhelm the work, being scored for string orchestra and bell alone. But Järvi uses the space to his advantage. The sound literally comes from a great distance away, making one feel rather apart from it. Yet it adds a different dimension to the music. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by it, one is drawn to listen to it more carefully.

The entrance of the strings is one of the all-too-rare occasions when the performers are totally engaged with the music from the very outset, and Järvi coaxes a delicately warm sound from them too. But it is his ‘performance’ of silences, at the beginning and at the end of the work, which are the most entrancing. Even when all instruments have ceased to sound at the close, with arms still raised he refuses to end the piece. Instead Järvi forces the entire Albert Hall to continue listening to silence. It is by far the most affective moment in the concert, and one that could never be captured on a recording.

Janine Jansen’s violin playing in Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto can equally captivate an audience. Although there is again the danger of the hall swallowing the sound from her solo violin, Jansen has no trouble in projecting. Her playing is characterised by its persistent sweetness and refusal to sound harsh. Nevertheless, there are many sides to it: joyful, playful, energetic, and occasionally ferocious. Her tackling of the cadenza between the second and third movements is particular impressive. She attacks it with complete confidence, unafraid of the virtuosity required. Meanwhile, Järvi ensures that the orchestra never overpower Jansen’s playing, keeping his orchestra under a firm control, while allowing them more power during orchestral interludes.

Following the interval is a programme of solely French repertoire. Järvi’s performance of Berlioz’s Overture ‘Le corsaire’ is fun and relentlessly energetic. It is almost over too quickly, turning it into a brief interlude before the following symphony. But it would be difficult for it not to be, since what follows is Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 Organ” played on an organ with 9,997 speaker pipes, the largest of which tower over the comparably tiny orchestra. With no organ in the first movement Järvi is still very much in control. The slow introduction is played handsomely: it is quiet but not too hesitant either. However, they lose momentum during the development section, especially during the less energetic moments when the orchestra seem unsure of where they are heading.

It is difficult for Järvi to maintain control into the second movement when the organ starts playing. The balance is not quite right here, as it completely overpowers the orchestra when it should be accompanying them. Escaich’s playing becomes the centre of attention, turning the second movement into a concerto for organ, which really should wait until the final movement.

Nevertheless, the huge C major chord on the organ that opens the final movement is ridiculously enormous. The organ’s monstrous sound finally forces the orchestra to put in the energy that they had been crucially missing in earlier movements. But there is absolutely no competition. The only way of telling that the orchestra really are playing as hard as they can is by watching them sawing, pounding or puffing away at their instruments. It is a wholly different experience from listening to a recording, and a far more comical one at that. Where else would one see a timpanist having to jump in an effort to be heard during the organ’s all-consuming final chord?

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