in: Reviews

June 16, 2013

Hilliard’s [Swan]Songbook?

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The Hilliard Ensembel (file photo)

The Hilliard Ensembel (file photo)

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.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

12 Comments

  1. For a different (and very negative) review of this performance, you might want to look at James Oestreich’s column in today’s NY Times (website). If it isn’t in today’s newsprint edition it will probably be in tomorrow’s.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — June 16, 2013 at 7:44 pm

  2. We were in shock at this concert, and, like several others in the audience as well as Mr. Oestreich, considered leaving at intermission. The faulty intonations were so disappointing that we bled for the performers. What is that movie about a Hollywood actress who tried valiantly to live up to her past — and painfully failed? Bette Davis, was it?

    Alan Levitan leaves us in the dark as to his reaction; perhaps he will elucidate? And what did other Dear Readers think?

    As for the other events of the BEMF festival, there were myriad outstanding pleasures, among them the Charpentier double bill, Handel’s Almira, Ema Kirkby with Dowland, Bezuidenhout in everything, Symphonies des Dragons (what a pair!: Ruiz and Montoya!), Fabio Bonizzoni on the harpsichord, Rosa das Rosas with the Newberry Condort and our local Exsultemus, and our other local treasure, the various ensembles of BEMF. And let us not ever forget that dancing! O, that lithesome Baroque dancing! Lest the Dear Reader wonders at possible omissions of treats, there are concerts we had to miss. I am sure it was our loss. Perhaps correspondents can air their opinions here?

    And guess what, folks? We are lucky enough to have a contemporary music festival from Tangkewood that, although of shorter duration, is equally enjoyable. Now tell me, all you music lovers, are we especially lucky here in Boston?

    Comment by Bettina A . Morton — June 16, 2013 at 9:06 pm

  3. Lee, I thought you had corrected my heavy- handed finger; please do so, and I will do so at my end.

    Comment by Bettina A . Morton — June 16, 2013 at 9:08 pm

  4. “Emma” has two “m”s; again, please correct, Lee?

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — June 16, 2013 at 9:45 pm

  5. “Alan Levitan leaves us in the dark as to his reaction” (Bettina Norton). I didn’t attend the Hilliard concert. I came across Oestreich’s review while browsing the music section of the NY Times website and remembered Mr. Prince’s adulatory review. I merely wanted to make a contrary perspective available, should anyone be interested (I found it convincing). For those who haven’t accessed the Oestreich piece it’s worth noting that he singled out the Fringe concert by our local amateur group, Convivium Musicum (always so fine), as the balm and antidote (the “hit”) to what he characterized as the Hilliard “miss.”

    Comment by Alan Levitan — June 16, 2013 at 11:24 pm

  6. The first half of the Hilliard Ensemble’s concert on Friday evening was shockingly bad, and I found it difficult to listen to the often-sour tuning and pinched tone from this once-fine ensemble. Things improved somewhat in the second half, but not all the way to classic Hilliard Ensemble standards—either on their records or in past live concerts. Perhaps Mr. Prince was listening through a glow of nostalgia for their better efforts.

    Here’s a link to Mr. Oestreich’s New York Times review: http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/16/some-misses-and-hits-at-boston-early-music-festival/

    Comment by Stephen Owades — June 17, 2013 at 9:43 am

  7. Thank you; and yes, the Oestreich review was indeed convincing. And one regrets too often the missed concerts that were hits, as several attenders have noted about Convivium Musicum’s, or Commonwealth Opera’s recent Rachmaninov, per LLoyd Schwartz ‘s review in New York Arts.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — June 17, 2013 at 9:45 am

  8. Having read both reviews of Hilliard, each one from the pen of an intelligent music-lover, I admit to an uneasy feeling.

    The question of who hears what is a profound one, with almost metaphysical implications. The late Leon Kirchner use to cite, with a measure of glee, one of Stravinsky’s own recordings (was it the Symphony in C?)in which the principal cellist played his solo, from beginning to end, in the wrong clef, without being corrected by the composer-conductor. Does that mistake call into question Stravinsky’s ear? If not, what else might have induced the error?

    Comment by Joel Cohen — June 17, 2013 at 10:36 am

  9. >> The question of who hears what is a profound one

    Too true, and forget about metaphysics, it’s true of the simple physical acoustics. Gantz in today’s Globe reported no tuning problems, and I know he can hear, but I also know Owades can hear, so what to think? And this for some ears was at the walkout level. It’s more vexing than issues of string quartet intonation.

    Comment by David Moran — June 17, 2013 at 2:17 pm

  10. I was there; it was among the weakest professional concerts I’ve ever heard; probably the weakest. Gantz says their enunciation was crisp; that much is true. But that’s the most you could say for them.

    It’s nice to muse philosophically about profound questions like “who hears what?” Less profound concerns, however, about embarrassing a well-known ensemble, probably played a larger role in these reviews.

    Comment by Thomas Garvey — June 17, 2013 at 5:36 pm

  11. Maybe in general, but Gantz is an honest reporter and would never hesitate to speak his mind.

    Comment by David Moran — June 17, 2013 at 7:08 pm

  12. Well, then either I and the New York TImes, and the editor of this journal, are all tone deaf – or Jeffrey Gantz is. Sorry, but it’s just one or the other.

    Comment by Thomas Garvey — June 17, 2013 at 8:25 pm

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