As soon as the four members of the Hilliard Ensemble begin to sing, I was transported back to my undergraduate years at Cambridge, when I would from time to time attend evensong in my college chapel, St John's. When the boy trebles weren't there, the singing was left to the men – counter-tenors, tenors, and basses. They were of course all young, whereas the Hilliard Ensemble is extremely experienced, but the sound world, of pure fifths and sharp thirds, and a blend learnt simply by listening, was the same. In my time the choir of St John's was directed by George Guest, and down the road was another college choir which I heard less frequently – King's, directed by David Willcocks, which soon spawned the very successful King's Singers. There was enough humour in the program given by the Hilliard Ensemble last night to provoke comparison with them – a witty strophic song called Passacalli della vita, and the good-natured encore, for example – and the Hilliard shares with the King's Singers the capacity to tread on a fine line between absolute integrity and a gentle parody of itself. It would not have surprised me if they had sung ˆThe Highway Code, the Kings' Singers famous demonstration that if you sing well it doesn't matter what you sing, it will sound gorgeous.
If one is to compare within their traditions, the Hilliard Ensemble sounds no more like King's than it does like John's – rather, the counter-tenor David James, the tenors Roger Covey-Crump and Steven Harold, and the bass Gordon Jones, all widely recorded soloists in their own right, combined the virtues of both in a near-perfect combination of allowing their individual voices to speak while blending effortlessly. And some thing else that takes the Hilliard to another level is their commitment to music by living composers, who of course are all delighted to be able to write for such a group. Their program combined music of medieval France, early Renaissance England, and slightly later Italy, with pieces written for them by a range of composers still alive, and also two pieces by Arvo Pärt.
They have been singing pieces like Ah Robin for decades. Their diction is natural and flawless, and the softest words could be heard at the back of the Adelaide Town Hall. An anonymous Madame d'amours made me long for some Josquin, while Remember me my dear, also anon, made me think of the much later Gibbons. When they sang the most famous Italian madrigal of all, Arcadelt's Il bianco e dolce cygno I was somehow reminded of Vecchi's outrageous parody of it in L'amfiparnaso – but why? These were framed in the first half by a cycle by Piers Hellawell, in which duets and trios meandered with each voice seemingly directionless, and which I have to say left me a little cold, and a splendid set of madrigals by Gavin Bryars, whose music referred to the madrigal tradition with reverence and produced some remarkable harmonic moments.
The second half contained the Pärt pieces. The first, And one of the Pharisees, a narrative from the Gospels about Jesus dining with a Pharisee when a woman anoints his feet, was delivered with a dramatic conviction that was absolutely riveting, and produced the strongest applause from the audience (the hall was, unaccountably, not nearly full). It was preceded by a another wonderful piece, a dialogue between Jesus and the Soul, by the late 15th century English composer Sheryngham, and the pairing was instructive – the techniques both of composition and performance were remarkably similar. The other piece by Pärt was a setting of a single phrase, Most holy mother of God. Sometimes Pärt crosses over the line of how little he can write and still be interesting, and this piece did that for me.
The second half also featured three Armenian songs, where the ensemble flattered the audience by not translating the texts, and, not knowing any Armenian myself, I failed to follow them. The concert concluded with a section from Machaut's Messe de notre dame.
Throughout the concert, the group performed with immaculate ensemble and beautiful coordination that seemed to absolve them from the need to actually communicate directly with the audience. They were certainly capable of such communication – witness the glares with which they fixed the audience until it was silent – but this powerful control was oddly at variance with the urbane smiles with which they greeted the applause, and with the occasional glance that one or other of the group gave to the audience while singing over their music desks, rather as a good lecturer does. But for the audience, it felt more like overhearing something amazingly beautiful than a performance. And as they walked off the stage I was conscious of a certain out-of-place-ness, as if they had noticed for the first time that they weren't in a Cambridge college and didn't know quite where they were.
More English than the Hilliard Ensemble you can't get. Not even if you are John Cleese.
2012 Adelaide Festival
The Hilliard Songbook
The Hilliard Ensemble
Venue: Adelaide Town Hall
Date: Wed 14 Mar 7pm
Duration: 110 minutes (with interval)
Tickets: $69 – $30
Bookings: BASS Online | 131 246