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Hilliard Ensemble Farewell Concert, Wigmore Hall, London — review
From the Financial Times of Mon, 22 Dec 2014 17:47:46 GMT
The Hilliard Ensemble©Marco Borggreve

The Hilliard Ensemble

The Hilliard Ensemble’s final concert, at Wigmore Hall last Saturday, was a dignified affair. There was nothing in the vocal quartet’s demeanour to suggest that a 41-year career was coming to an end: no over-sentimentality, no endless stream of encores, no tearful speeches thanking every Tom, Dick and Harry. Instead the singers simply got on with it.

The audience’s reaction was far less subdued. After all, this all-male, silver-haired group has long been one of the UK’s most celebrated early music ensembles. Since the 1980s it has been equally renowned for championing contemporary repertoire. So it’s appropriate that the programme embraced nine centuries’ worth of music. And each piece was delivered, as usual, with forensic attention to detail.

“Viderunt omnes”, a vibrant piece by the 12th-century composer Pérotin, came across with particular force. In the Hilliard’s hands its harmonic pungency sounded contemporary, throwing the relative tameness of other works on the programme into sharp relief. One of these was “Ah, gentle Jesu”, by the early Tudor composer Sheryngham. The Hilliard declaimed it like a whispered prayer, milking the text for every scrap of meaning. But not everything was so easy on the ear: “There is no rose”, an anonymous 15th-century carol, suffered from countertenor David James’s slippery intonation.

The contemporary offerings were more memorable, not least because many of the composers were in the audience. In fact, the format of the entire evening resembled This is Your Life, with various key figures from the Hilliard’s history clambering on to the stage after performances of their works. Arvo Pärt — a long-time collaborator — was absent, but he was well represented by two pieces: “And One of the Pharisees . . .” and the haunting “Most Holy Mother of God”. The Hilliard allowed every word to breathe, an approach that served the ensemble equally well in an extract from Goebbels’s 2008 staged work, “I went to the house but did not enter”. The performance was witty enough to raise several laughs, and the audience was clearly reluctant to let them depart at the end. Nevertheless, a couple of the singers sounded fairly worn out. Perhaps this was indeed a good time to give themselves a well-deserved rest.

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