Forty years after the group was founded by Paul Hillier in 1974 the Hilliard Ensemble will retire from performing at the end of 2014. I think I’m right in saying that David James, the counter-tenor, is the only surviving member of the original ensemble. That said, despite changes in personnel over the years the Hilliard’s standards of performance and musicianship have remained remarkably consistent – and high – throughout the last four decades. Though set down two years ago this disc is to be their last release.
In a brief booklet note David James comments that the group’s very first recording was devoted to music from the court of King Henry VIII “and so it seemed appropriate for our final recording to return to our roots, particularly as we have never recorded several of our most loved and often performed pierces from this period.” It seems a shame to criticise when so much else about this album is excellent. However the information supplied about the music itself could charitably be described as minimalist. The note by David James runs to three short paragraphs and, apart from this, there is no information whatsoever. After all, there will be many people who will buy this disc but who will lack specialist knowledge of the repertoire. These listeners will be left somewhat high and dry and I think that’s unfair.
Enough of carping. This disc is a fine envoi
from the Hilliards. The sub-title of the album is
English Carols and Motets
but this is not really a ‘Christmas’ disc, though several of the pieces are related to the birth of Christ. In fact, arguably the finest piece is about the Crucifixion. This is Ah, gentle Jesu
by Sheryngham, a composer of whom I’d never heard and about whom virtually nothing is known apart from his surname. The piece is a dialogue between the crucified Christ and a penitent sinner at the foot of the Cross. Much of the music is sung by pairs of voices with the full ensemble of four coming together at crucial points. It’s a remarkable piece and the performance is even more remarkable – the singing is highly disciplined yet full of feeling.
I admired Plummer’s Anna mater
, an anthem in honour of the mother of the Blessed Virgin. This four-part piece is devotional and measured and the top line, sung by David James, is haunting. The same composer’s O pulcherrima mulierum
is equally impressive. It’s a setting of words from the Song of Songs and the tone is gently ecstatic.
There is no rose
is a very well-known medieval English piece in two parts. In this case the twin vocal lines are perfectly balanced throughout and the tuning is impeccable. This performance is a prime case of art concealing art. The music of There is no rose
is fairly simple in design, certainly beside Walter Lambe’s Stella CŠli
. Lambe’s part-writing is often as elaborate as stonework tracery in fifteenth century fan vaulting. By contrast William Cornysh’s Ave Maria, Mater Dei
, another Marian piece, is wonderfully intimate and devotional.
All the pieces on this disc contain music in which there is no hiding place for the musicians. Everything is cruelly exposed and the slightest lapse in ensemble, tuning or intonation will mar things. There’s no hint of blemish about any aspect of what we hear. The Hilliard Ensemble are masters of their craft and their vast experience and consummate understanding of how to perform music such as this is evident from start to finish. Of one thing I am certain: all of the composers represented here, whether their identities are known to us or not, would have been astounded and delighted not only to find their music still alive in the twenty-first century but also to find it being served with such understanding and skill.
The Hilliard Ensemble’s final disc sees them finish their recording career in fine style.
Thomas gemma CantuariŠ primula/Thomas cesus in Doveria
St. Thomas honour we [3:19]
John PLUMMER (1410-1483)
Lullay, I saw [2:41]
O pulcherrima mulierum
There is no rose [4:43]
Walter LAMBE (1450/51-c.1499)
Marvel not Joseph [4:45]
Ecce quod natura
William CORNYSH ‘the Elder’ (c.1468-1523)
Ave Maria, Mater Dei
Ah! My dear Son [7:12]
Sancta mater gracie
/Dou way Robin [2:36]
SHERYNGHAM (dates ?)
Ah, gentle Jesu [8:27]