By Leslie Kandell
NEW YORK – “A cappella male quartet” is a phrase that suggests mellow guys crooning in seersucker jackets and straw boaters. But none of that imagery applies to the Hilliard Ensemble, whose British nationality and unusual repertoire are a long way from barbershop. Named for the Elizabethan miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard, the 40-year-old group sings – and prolifically records – music ranging from medieval Armenian liturgy arrangements to new works that it commissions from Arvo Pärt and other East European composers.
One original Hilliard member remains: countertenor David James. Two others, tenor Rogers Covey-Crump and baritone Gordon Jones, joined in 1990, and tenor Steven Harrold in 2000. They have worked together so long and so intimately that their performances have the blend, style, assurance, and shared understanding of great string quartets such as the Guarneri and the Emerson.
In these musical respects, their sold-out concert on Jan. 22, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s cavernous glass-walled Temple of Dendur, was a beauty. It was one of the first concerts in a yearlong farewell tour, after which the Hilliard plans to disband.
The concert’s title, “A Millennium of Music,” about fit the selections, which came from 13th-century France (after which “the chronology ebbed and flowed,” as James put it in a pre-concert interview) through Armenia and England, up to living composers and recent music.
The performance was not part of a recording tour, but a few selections are on Officium Novum, (New Service), the ECM label’s third installment of awe-inspiring Armenian church-service pieces recorded in a mountainside Armenian monastery. Some pieces were discovered there and arranged by the monk and composer Komitas Vardapet, a contemporary of Delius.
Timbre was under control and ranged widely. “Vetus abit littera,” a setting of a sacred text that opened the concert, had that wild vocal force associated with William Billings and also with shape-note singing. In contrast, Komitas’ arrangements of three traditional pieces in Russian-sounding thirds slid smoothly along.
An English Renaissance composer named Sheryngham, whose works have all but vanished, left a dramatic piece called “Ah, Gentle Jesu,” a dialogue between a penitent sinner and the crucified Christ. Two voices take each part, forecasting the Britten Canticles that came more than a half-millennium later.
The concert’s last pieces were five Russian Orthodox hymns and prayers collectively called Praise by Alexander Raskatov, performed first in 2000. One was “The Lord’s Prayer” and another a setting of Psalm 141. Their primitive sounds – unison speech bits and short bursts of sound over dissonant drones – somehow fit in with the concert’s texture.
The Officium Novum recording selections from which the Hilliard performed at Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival in 2010, includes the soprano saxophone of Jan Garbarek, a Norwegian. The instrument’s weird, haunting quality added to the vocal blend, extending tones in length and height, giving them freedom and exotic mystery. Listeners could probably love or hate it; these ears are in the first group, and they missed that saxophone so much the record had to be played later.
A few other things in fact needed tweaking – not the fascinating selections but external matters. The ensemble members – as they told the audience while waiting for the sound system to be fixed – had awakened before dawn in North Carolina after a Duke University performance. Against predictions, they made their way (long story short) to New York City in a crippling snowstorm and near-record low temperatures.
Because the concert was streamed live on Q2 Music, radio host John Schaefer asked each singer a couple of prefatory questions, which went unheard till the audience shouted complaints. Sound was adjusted – twice – but before the performance began, the performers had to call for more light to see their stands.
That too was adjusted. But the program had no word sheets. That wouldn’t have mattered if the repertoire were the likes of “Sweet Adeline.” But early French was followed by Church Slavonic (the liturgical language of many Eastern Orthodox churches), Armenian, and pre-Shakespeare English. The attentive audience, which had braved the cold, was faced with a language barrier as well.
For the most part, the program notes mentioned the composers or circumstances of the discovery of each piece, but not what it was about. This audience passed the sportsmanship test but was not rewarded with an encore, let alone a pop or spiritual crowd-pleaser that a cappella groups often conclude with. These fine musicians were worn out, and just not in the mood.
I went home and listened to the recording with the saxophone again, and I got my center back.
Leslie Kandell has contributed to The New York Times, MusicalAmerica.com, Musical America Directory, and several publications in Western Massachusetts. She can be seen in the September issue of Inside Southern Berkshire.