tue 25/06/2019

Garbarek, Hilliard Ensemble, King's College Chapel Cambridge | reviews, news & interviews

Garbarek, Hilliard Ensemble, King's College Chapel Cambridge

Garbarek, Hilliard Ensemble, King's College Chapel Cambridge

The Hilliards and Garbarek know how to play the building

The Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Garbarek at Bath AbbeyTim Dickeson

This was “Officium – the final concert.” The Hilliard Ensemble took their decision around three years ago to disband as a group, and – for three of them – to retire, rather than to re-launch with a new generation of voices. They are now on the road doing a series of farewells. Their final bow will be at the Wigmore Hall on December 20th, and between now and then, their victory lap takes in Taunton, Gdansk, Châlons-en-Champagne, Florence and Cologne. This one in Cambridge was the opportunity to bask, for one very last time, in the completely unforeseen level of success – around 1.5 million album sales and 1,000 live concerts all over the world – of their collaboration with Jan Garbarek.

In July1994, the saxophonist and the vocal ensemble gave their first UK concert together in the same location. Back then, it had taken quite an effort to get the tickets shifted, notably the special pre-release of a track from the Officium (image of album cover right – just released on vinyl) to be played on BBC Radio 4's Kaleidoscope; last night's concert had been sold out for several months in advance.

This valedictory concert included items from all three of those albums, performed as an uninterrupted sequence, and, as has always been the habit of this combination, with no set-list published. The Hilliards were also re-joined for most of the programme by one of their original core members, and a key instigator of their sound, the tenor (and one-time King's College Cambridge chorister) John Potter, who left the group in 1998 to be replaced by Steven Harrold.

The group and Garbarek have developed their particular ways of performing, which essentially give Garbarek the freedom to roam, to comment, to improvise around what they do. Their super-slow-mo version of Thomas Tallis' “O Lord in Thee is all my Trust” from Mnemosyne gave Garbarek the space, and one of many opportunities to wander off into the choir and send volleys of his unique soprano saxophone sound echoing round the chapel from far away. The sense of a distance between what the Hilliards do and what Garbarek does has been the constant in this collaboration. As the counter-tenor in the group David James admitted recently in an article: “Jan has never once looked at a single piece of the music we sing”. 

The Hilliards and Garbarek know how to play the building. Listeners appreciate these far-away, ethereal, celestial sounds. There are times when it is impossible to tell whether the voices are coming from in front, or from behind, and eyes are drawn towards the architectural detail of the building (detail of King's College Chapel ceiling fan-vaulting left)

The most poignant performance of the evening was of a piece dedicated to the Hilliards. It stood out as being the only one performed without Garbarek. Arvo Pärt's “Most Holy Mother of God” was written for them in 2003, and mostly consists of the same phrase repeated mantra-like, with silence between each iterated phrase. It worked superbly, and also underlined the Estonian composer's significance in the Hilliards' back-story. The Hilliards were introduced in person to both Pärt himself and to Manfred Eicher at a recording session in East London in 1985 and that surprise encounter led to the Hilliard's first recording for ECM the following year, and provided the spark for much of what was to happen subsequently.

At the end of the evening, after a 70-minute set, the group came full circle. After their first encore, the 17th-century Scottish lament "Remember Me My Dear”, the second, and the very last piece Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble performed, was the first which they  had ever tried out together, back in 1994, “Parce Mihi Domine”, by Cristóbal de Morales (1500-1553).

After it, the musicians stepped back onto the small stage in front of the rood screen in King's College Chapel for the last time, and Manfred Eicher of ECM came on too, to take a final bow alongside them. Eicher had definitely earned his place on that stage, in front of the packed ante-chapel. It was his original idea to bring Garbarek and the Hilliards together, and the ECM aesthetic, vision, and commercial network that have been at the heart of this unlikely success.

But not even Eicher could have foreseen how prophetic the very last words of the Morales motet sung (in Latin) would be: “For now I shall lie in the earth; thou wilt seek me, but I shall not be.” Now that's spooky.

The sense of a distance between what the Hilliards do and what Garbarek does has been the constant in this collaboration

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Average: 4 (1 vote)

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