11 December 2013 – Spitalfields Music Winter Festival 2013

Trust the Hilliard Ensemble to organise their fortieth anniversary concert on a date of numerological significance; I’m sure Josquin and his contemporaries would have appreciated the gesture! The anniversary programme spanned both the history of Western music and the history of the ensemble, beginning with plainsong antiphons for advent interwoven with polyphony from Josquin, Victoria and Nenna all performed with that magical vocal blend.

In 40 years there have been only nine full-time Hilliards, eight of whom were reunited for this concert (Paul Hillier having another concert to perform in). Hearing the singers together offered an opportunity to reflect on the special timbres of each voice and how they have all contributed to the overall style of the group. In particular, it was fascinating to hear John Potter and Paul Elliott singing the two tenor parts in Byrd’s Decendit de coelis, both sounding fabulous.

The programme also featured music from the very first Hilliard Ensemble concert, Britten’s Journey of the Magi and, characteristically, a new work by Roger Marsh for all eight of the singers: Poor Yorick. Marsh’s score was by turns witty and complex with an extended middle scene for the current Hilliard members framed by an eight-voice reflective chorus. It was a long text, set quickly and wittily, obviously with the deftness and clarity of the Hilliard Ensemble in mind. The singers’ voracious appetite for new music was evident as they performed it with both the precision of the Andrews Sisters and a palpable sense of mischievous enjoyment. Having promoted much new music over the years it was a fitting way to end their concert and in its own way it stole the show.

Perhaps it is this juxtaposition of old and new that has made the biggest contribution to the ongoing freshness and relevance of these performers?  The Hilliard Ensemble is a masterclass on how to age with style.

Ed Breen

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