The Hilliard Ensemble: Farewell Concert at Wigmore Hall

While countertenor David James
is the sole survivor from the original four-man line-up, the current quartet of
James, tenors Rogers Covey-Crump and Steven Harrold, and baritone Gordon Jones
have been singing together since 1998, and this Farewell Concert at the Wigmore
Hall — an occasion for both poignancy and celebration — confirmed that they
are bowing out while still at the top.

Performing music from PÈrotin to P‰rt, from anonymous medieval carols to
Roger Marsh’s 2013 Poor Yorick, the Hilliards gave a masterclass in
musical and textual precision; not for nothing are they named after the
Elizabethan miniaturist, Nicholas Hilliard, whose attention to pictorial detail
they have ever aimed to replicate in musical contexts. But, more remarkable
even than the accuracy and clarity — every word perfectly enunciated — was
the innate, shared musicality of the four singers; the rises and falls, ebbs
and flows were instinctively felt and mesmerising in their assured simplicity
and directness. It is this ‘oneness’ that produces such pure, entrancing
vocal beauty.

In a recent Guardian article, Gordon Jones remarked that the
programme for the group’s Farewell Concert was ‘a bit unstructured —
that’s unusual for us. But taken together it represents much that has been
important to us, and to the people who have been close to us and who will be in
the audience. We were also keen to include a few pieces written for us by
composers who will also be in attendance’. The programme may have been
eclectic but during this valedictory evening it was the Hilliards’ ability to
reveal the modernity of PÈrotin’s plainsong, with its complex rhythms and
striking dissonances, and to make music from the twenty-first century speak
with the sincerity and openness of Gregorian chant which underlined the
ensemble’s range and accomplishment.

We began, fittingly, with the first-known notated composition for four
voices, PÈrotin’sViderunt Omnes, a Christmas
gradual: the lowest voice — the cantus firmus — presents that
original plainchant in extremely long notes, while the other voices blossom in
elaborate melismatic polyphony.A remarkably poised balance was
achieved between the elongated syllables of the bass and the complex decorative
counterpoint above; and there was a wonderful clarity with each resolution of
the increasing dissonance before the change from one syllable of the text to
the next, creating a sense of spiritual affirmation. Indeed, the short text
announces that God has arrived in ‘All the ends of the world’ and the Lord
has ‘declared his salvation’, and there was a spirit of exultation in the
buoyant rhythms and driving imitative points. Interestingly, the clashing
overtones foreshadowed the ‘tintinnabulation’ of Arvo P‰rt, heard later in
the evening.

The Hilliards have commissioned many new compositions, adding greatly to the
richness of the repertoire for four high male voices. During a 1995 residency
at the summer school which they established, Piers Hellawell offered the group
settings of passages from Nicholas Hilliard’s The Art of Limning,
published in 1570, which explore the expressive nature of colour. The text of
‘True beautie’ strives to capture the power of colour to make objects
appear transparent, a power evoked by the Hilliards’ ravishing tone; the
scrupulously rendered interweaving melodies of ‘Saphire’ were a musical
match for the power of the painter, a ‘cunning artificer’, who ‘helpeth
nature and addeth beauty’.

In contrast to such intricacy, the music of Arvo P‰rt offered simple
artlessness. P‰rt’s And One of the Pharisees, a setting of a
long-text from the gospel of Luke for baritone, tenor and countertenor,
contrasted homophonic, monosyllabic chanting recounting the parable of
Christ’s forgiveness of a sinful woman with the freer solo-voice direct
speech of Christ and the Pharisee.Most Holy Mother of God, for 4
voices, composed for the group in 2003, their thirtieth year, is a repetitive
plea to the Blessed Virgin to ‘save us’. In both works, the Hilliards
captured the intense liturgical candour of P‰rt’s minimalist idiom, while in
the Most Holy Mother they use the tensions in the syncopated opening
motif to create energy and momentum within the meditative medium.

In December 2013, celebrating their 40th anniversary, the
ensemble premiered Roger Marsh’s Poor Yorick, a setting of the
description of the death of Yorick from Laurence Sterne’s Tristram
Here they presented the long central section of the three-part
work, ‘Death of Yorick’, Rogers Covey-Crump singing
affectingly as the dying Yorick while Gordon Jones assumed the role of
Eugenius, whose tearful addresses to his dying friend at times took a wry turn,
as with the consolation, ‘I declare I know not, Yorick, how to part with
thee, and would gladly flatter my hopes … that there is still enough left of
thee to make a bishop, and that I may live to see it’. The Hilliards enjoyed
the humour and the theatricality of the work, expressed through Marsh’s rich

But, it was in the earlier repertoire that the singers excelled, elevating
seemingly simple compositions such as‘There is no rose’,
‘Lullay, lullow’ and ‘Ecce quod natura’ — anonymous carols for two
and three voices — to high musical stature. Most striking of all was the
eloquence of ‘Ah, gentle Jesu’ by Sheryngham, a composer about whose life
and work nothing is known. A candid dialogue between the crucified Christ (two
low voices) and a remorseful sinner (two high voices), this work was
beautifully soft and warm.

The Farewell concluded with ‘Excursion into the Mountains’ from the
austere music drama I went to the house but did not enter by Heiner
Goebbels, a mediation on the passing of life which was commissioned by the
Hilliards and first performed in 2008. ‘Excursion in the Mountains’
presents a complete short story by Kafka in which a writer reflects on the
negatives and absences in his life, desiring the freedom of the mountains where
‘throats become free!’ The spirited music ironically contrasts with the
quizzical text, and the work ended, appropriately, with the jovial exclamation:
‘It’s a wonder that we don’t burst into song.’

Jones, in the afore-mentioned interview, remarked prior to the event, ‘As
we approach the final performance I’ve really no idea how we will feel on the
night. We’ve sung more than 100 concerts around the world this year, and
throughout, we’ve resisted as strongly as we could calling it a “farewell
tour”. That would have seemed so maudlin and mawkish … I just hope we can
get through everything — some of the pieces are quite tricky — especially
if it turns out to be a bit of a Kleenex evening.’

In fact, this was not an evening for tears, just gladness and joy that we
have had the opportunity to experience such wonderful music-making, a mood
perfectly captured by the single encore which tenderly slipped away into the
silence, the Scottish song, ‘Remember Me My Dear’.

Claire Seymour

Performers and programme:

The Hilliard Ensemble: David James countertenor, Rogers Covey-Crump
tenor, Steven Harrold tenor, Gordon Jones baritone. Wigmore Hall, London,
Saturday 20 th December 2014.

PÈrotin — Viderunt omnes; Piers Hellawell — ‘True
beautie’, ‘Saphire’; Arvo P‰rt — And One of the Pharisees;
Roger Marsh — ‘Death of Yorick’; Sheryngham — ‘Ah, gentle Jesu’;
Arvo P‰rt — Most Holy Mother of God; Anonymous — ‘There is no
rose’, ‘Marvel not Joseph’, ‘Lullay, lullow’; 15th-century
English carol — ‘Ecce quod natura’; Heiner Goebbels, ‘Excursion in the

image_description=The Hilliard Ensemble [Photo by Marco Borggreve]
product_title=The Hilliard Ensemble: Farewell Concert at Wigmore Hall
product_id=A review by Claire Seymour
product_by=Above: The Hilliard Ensemble [Photo by Marco Borggreve]