Friday’s BEMF presentation at Emmanuel Church was a stellar showcase indeed of the Hilliard Ensemble’s manifold talents in early music from Western, Slavonic and Armenian traditions. “A Hilliard Songbook” offered secular and sacred music communicated in the most-direct, least-mediated way possible: extremely skilled singers raising their unaccompanied voices in song with execution of the highest caliber.
The current line-up, David James, countertenor; Roger Covey-Crump, tenor; Steven Harrold, tenor; and Gordon Jones, baritone, drew broadly from 1000 Anno Domine to 1500 Anno Domine, across genres and traditions. The secular music grew out of the wide river of compositions inspired by Petrarch’s Canzoniere, a magisterial collection of love lyrics written between the 1320s and 1370 which traces the narrator’s love for his beloved, Laura. The program opened with Eustache de Monte Regali (d. ca. 1527), Chiare, fresch’e dolce acque (four voices), followed by Non al suo amante (two voices) by Jacopo da Bologna (fl. 1340 – 1360), then a set of three songs—Solo e pensoso, L’aer gravato, Tutt’il di piango—by Jacques Arcadelt (ca. 1507 – 1568). These songs all highlighted the shock of the old: melismatic lyric lines over cantus firmus, dissonant suspensions, increasingly modal complexity, and an increasing divorce of the literality of words from the flowing musical notes. Arcadelt’s Tutt’il di piango was a study in slowly-moving polyphony, akin to fully-flowered motets. These secular love-songs set the stage for Dufay’s Vergene bella, a three-voiced, tender and loving song in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This song, in particular, showcased Landini cadences, which recurred throughout and gave a satisfying musical refrain to this program. All four voices joined together for three songs by Bernardo Pisano (1490 – 1548): Or vedi, Amor; Nova angeletta; & Chiare, fresche, e dolci acque. Nova angeletta was remarkable for the rhythmic sway and utter playfulness, combining sacred and secular spheres in a rollicking song about an angel ensnaring the singers in love; Chiare presented a Petrarchan poem heard earlier, now in a very different yet equally captivating setting. The mood shifted back to seriousness with Cipriano de Rore (1515/16 – 1565), Mia benigna fortuna, the two stanzas set in music of different characters as the song narrates the fortune of love and the grief of love lost. Following another set of three songs by Pisano (Si è debile il filo; Ne la stagion; & Che debb’io far?), the first half ended with Giaches de Wert (1535 – 1596), O cameretta, a sonnet on solitude and loneliness which managed to be both earnest and wry by equal measures.
More markedly sacred music followed intermission. Three hymns by St. Godric of Finchale (ca. 1069 – 1170)—Crist and Sainte Marie; Sainte Marie viergene; & Sainte Nicholas—were intoned antiphonally and a study pure singing of cantus firmus. Ah! Gentle Jesu by Sheryngham (fl. ca. 1500) presented a divided narrative; this work in particular was a paragon of ensemble singing. There followed two anonymous hymns from the Lipovan Old Believer tradition (Eastern Orthodox music from Kiev), Otche nasch (The Lord’s Prayer) and Dostoino est (a text perhaps more familiar as Bogorogitse dievo, the Eastern Orthodox equivalent of Ave Maria); both were sung without countertenor, and the latter was a flowing, rolling setting which was quite moving. John Plummer (ca. 1410 – 1483), O pulcherrima mulierum, continued the praise of Mary, this time with only one tenor singing; the music was part motet, part cantata. This early example of English choral singing, one that was quite possibly known across Europe during the composer’s lifetime, here found itself bracketed by more eastern works. The following item on the program was three traditional Sharakans arranged by Komitas (the founding figure of Armenian musicology and an avid transcriber of traditional Armenian songs): Ov zarmanali (three voices); Hays hark nviranac ukhti (four voices); & Surp, Ter zorutheanc. While the first two dwelt on Christian mysteries of faith, the latter was a song of Hosanna, here less ecstatic than profound and meditative. To round out this program, The Hilliard Ensemble turned to Josquin des Pres, O bone et dulcissime Iesu, a motet which manages to be both tender and delicate at the same time. Finally, a beloved work: Pérotin (fl. ca. 1200), Viderunt omnes, with its thrilling expansion and contraction of time, where the words stretch to the point of defying comprehension as the music bounces along, then the phrases find their completion in simple intoning.
Throughout the concert, The Hilliard Ensemble showed their mastery of the music and vocal technique. Songs flowed one into the next with no need to reset the pitch or think about the change in character or tone as the program moved from one character to the next. The performances remained true to the varied styles: the Eastern Orthodox and Armenian songs were true to these different harmonic worlds. As unsettling as that shift can be to our ears or to other singers, for The Hilliard Ensemble it posed no problems.
The evening ended with a delightful encore, Arvo Pärt’s Most Holy Mother of God, written for The Hilliard Ensemble. A challenge to sing, this short work draws on atypical intervals, a great vocal range, and harmonic structures outside the range of common practice music. None of these presented any challenge to the singer, who gave a truly moving performance of this four-minute work.
The Hilliard Ensemble, founded in 1974, will retire at the end of 2014 after 40 years of excellent musicking. This concert was probably their last Boston performance, and a wonderfully moving concert it was, too.