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Transeamus: English Carols and Motets
Track Listing below review
The Hilliard Ensemble (David James (countertenor), Rogers Covey-Crump, Steven Harrold (tenor), Gordon Jones (baritone))
rec. Propstei St Gerold, November 2012. DDD
booklet with texts and translations included
ECM NEW SERIES 4811106 (UK)/2408 (elsewhere) [67:42]
 
This is the Hilliard Ensemble’s swan-song on record before they retire at the end of 2014: between October and December 2014 they are touring Germany and Austria with saxophonist Jan Garbarek in a series of Officium concerts, including two short stops at the Temple Church in London (14 and 16 November), one at Ely Cathedral (15 November) and terminating on 6 December in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. On their own, without Garbarek, they will perform at St Mary Magdalene, Taunton (10 December), The Sage, Gateshead (17 December) and Wigmore Hall, London (20 December). Full details on their website.
 
They were founded in 1974 by Paul Hillier and others; of the original team only David James is still there 30 years later. I’ve followed their progress with interest since the early days when they recorded for Saga (a very promising debut on Popular Music from the Time of Henry VIII, Saga 5444), then for EMI, subsequently re-badged as Virgin Records and more recently as Erato: I recommended as Bargain of the Month a collection of their recordings for that label of Franco-Flemish music (6025322) as recently as Download News 2014/10. If you are not a fan of downloading, the CD set can be found online for under £20.
 
They also made successful recordings for Harmonia Mundi, many still available on their budget D’Abord label, Channel Classics, Oehms and Coro, but their recent output has been for the ECM label. They have recorded mainly music from the renaissance, but with distinguished forays into that of Arvo Pärt.
 
There are two possible misconceptions to dispel. Because the Ensemble have made several recent recordings with Jan Garbarek’s ad lib saxophone embellishments, you may think this is one such – I did, because the publicity material that came with it referred to the series of recordings which they made together under the general heading Officium: ECM 1525/4453692, due to be reissued on two vinyl LPs in Autumn 2014, ECM1700-01/4651222, 2 CDs and ECM2125/4763855 – review. (In each case UK purchasers use the number beginning with 4). Those are beautiful recordings but I have to admit that I was pleased to discover that the Hilliard Ensemble are on their own this time: somewhere alongside the beauty of Officium there’s a melancholy that always leaves me feeling a bit depressed.
 
The second disclaimer concerns the word ‘carol’ in the title: this is not just for Christmas, though some of the music is associated with that season – the season rather than the day. The opening triplum and duplum and the following English-texted work are for the feast of Thomas Becket, 28 December until it was abolished by Henry VIII, a monarch who was not too keen on commemorating an act of resistance to one of his royal predecessors. Incidentally, the anonymous librettist seems to have had a vivid imagination: Becket was murdered in his own Cathedral at Canterbury, not cesus in Doveria, slain at Dover. Perhaps the fact that the monk Richard of Dover arranged Becket’s funeral and became his successor, or the fact that some historians connect Henry II’s fortification of Dover with Becket’s martyrdom had something to do with the error.
 
The original meaning of the word carole relates to a kind of round dance and the term was applied in the Middle Ages to music, with or without words, on any theme, religious or secular. Ah, my dear Son relates to the crucifixion and Anna mater is in honour of the mother of the Virgin Mary. By the end of the period represented here, the transitional era between medieval and renaissance, such music was more often termed a motet, hence the second part of the subtitle.
 
Some pieces do refer to the Nativity (Lullay, lullow, track 5; There is no rose, track 7; Ecce quod natura, track 10) or to the Virgin Mary (O pulcherrima, track 6, text from the Song of Songs; Stella Cæli, track 8) but these are by no means the majority.
 
What we have here dates from the late 14th and 15th centuries, a period of great flowering when English music was highly regarded throughout Western Europe. Everything here represents a stage in the development of polyphony, with works in two, three and four parts. Much of it has been recorded before, often frequently, but some of it is unfamiliar: there seems to be just one other recording of the opening Thomas gemma Cantuariæ, one of the so-called Worcester Fragments (Orlando Consort, Amon Ra CDSAR059); similarly for Saint Thomas honour we (Orlando Consort again, Metronome METCD1001).
 
Clangat tuba (track 3), another piece in honour of St Thomas Becket, in Latin and Middle English, features on a Gothic Voices recording, The Spirits of England and France – 4 (Hyperion CDH55284 – review and Download News September 2010: Reissue of the Month). The comparison highlights the difference between two performing styles: Gothic Voices brisk and business-like, the Hilliards slower and more reverent. Both are appropriate but I have to state a preference for the brisker style of Christopher Page’s team on Hyperion – this is music of celebration and their time of 5:13 seems to me to get the mood just about right.
 
There’s another consideration here: it’s not just the tempo on Hyperion that is brisker, the tone is lighter, too. I’ve mentioned the edge of melancholy that I find with the Hilliards’ Officium collaborations and that’s partly inherent in the voices as well as in the plangent tones which Jan Garbarek weaves around them. Add the fact that the Hyperion CD comes at budget price (around £5.50, with downloads in mp3 and lossless sound available from hyperion-records.co.uk for just £4.99) and contains a more informative booklet, also available with the download, and it joins the whole of this Hyperion series as a must-have for fans of late-medieval and early Tudor polyphony. The quality of the Hyperion booklet, even at budget price – something for which the label is renowned – puts the single page of notes in the ECM equivalent to shame.
 
There is no rose (track 7) is much recorded. Once again the Hilliards sound a little plangent by comparison with Alamire, directed by David Skinner (Deo Gracias Anglia, Obsidian CD709), a Cambridge ensemble performing music partly from a collection associated with that University. I preferred Alamire’s more direct style, with harp accompaniment – unobtrusive except when it’s allowed a little space on its own between stanzas.
 
Cornysh the Elder’s Ave Maria (track 11) comes from the Eton Choir Book. It receives a fine performance here but there are rival versions to consider, of which I chose for comparison that by The Tallis Scholars (Gimell, most recently and most inexpensively on Renaissance Radio, CDGIM212 – Recording of the Month: review and Download News 2013/3: Bargain of the Month). The Scholars and the Hilliards take the music at about the same pace and I very much enjoyed both. Even if you bought Renaissance Radio – essentially an inexpensive showcase of the Scholars’ various recordings – on the strength of reviews from John Quinn and myself don’t let that deter you from the new ECM recording.
 
Ah, gentle Jesu (track 14), by the composer whom we know only as Sheryngham – no first name, no dates – also features in the Eton Choir Book and the piece has been recorded by The Sixteen on one of their CDs of music from that collection (Coro COR16012 – review and review – or the 5-CD-for-4 set COR16040). This time it’s The Sixteen – often faster in music of this period than other ensembles – who, surprisingly, are slower, at 11:00 as against the Hilliards’ 8:27. There’s no sense that Harry Christophers allows the music to drag on Coro, but this time it’s the more forthright performance on the new ECM album that makes the stronger impression of two very fine performances and makes a very fine end to their final recording.
 
Even where I have expressed a preference for another recording or thought the Hilliard Ensemble on a par with others, it’s certainly not my intention to dismiss their performance. All in all, though I recommend some or all of The Sixteen’s recordings of the music of the Eton Choir Book – a very important series of recordings of this repertoire, more recently supplemented by recordings from Christ Church, Oxford, on Avie – Gothic Voices’ (Hyperion) and The Tallis Scholars’ (Gimell) recordings of music of this period, I greatly enjoyed this new well-recorded programme. The performances are never mere also-rans and in some cases they even trump the distinguished competition. Only the brevity of documentation in the booklet is a serious cause for reservation.
 
Brian Wilson
 
Track Listing
Anonymous
Thomas gemma Cantuariæ primula/Thomas cesus in Doveria
[2:39]
St. Thomas honour we [3:19]
Clangat tuba [6:38]
John PLUMMER (1410-1483)
Anna mater
[6:52]
Anonymous
Lullay, I saw [2:41]
John PLUMMER
O pulcherrima mulierum
[3:17]
Anonymous
There is no rose [4:43]
Walter LAMBE (1450/51-c.1499)
Stella Cæli [6:40]
Anonymous
Marvel not Joseph [4:45]
Ecce quod natura [4:37]
William CORNYSH ‘the Elder’ (c.1468-1523)
Ave Maria, Mater Dei [2:58]
Anonymous
Ah! My dear Son [7:12]
Sancta mater gracie/Dou way Robin [2:36]
SHERYNGHAM (dates ?)
Ah, gentle Jesu [8:27]