We celebrated four decades of musical accomplishment last Friday as The Hilliard Ensemble gave their farewell concert in the Howard Assembly Room.
I have known of The Hilliard Ensemble for three years since my early days as an undergraduate music student. As a choral singer myself, I soon became aware that if my choir was performing, for example, Tallis’ The Lamentations of Jeremiah, or a Bach Motet or a Gesueldo Madrigal, the ensemble we should all be listening to and learning from was The Hilliard Ensemble. ‘Listen out for their exactness in rhythm’ I remember being told in my first year at university. And so, when I learnt that I would be a volunteer event host for their concert in the Howard Assembly Room, I was truly excited.
This was the first time I had heard the ensemble in concert. Not only was I going to listen to one of the world’s finest vocal chamber groups, but also the programme they had chosen was particularly interesting. Interesting in the sense that, apart from the William Cornysh Ave Maria, I knew none of the material! It consisted of a selection of twelfth to fifteenth century English and French music. Of added interest was that this concert was part of their farewell tour. The ensemble could have chosen music that they knew the audience was probably more familiar with and taken from their repertoire assembled over forty years of singing together, but in the event the chosen works made the concert fresh and exciting.
As I sat on my little wall seat listening at the back of the upper level of the hall, I could hear every word so clearly and the tuning was impeccable. But this wasn’t the striking thing about the concert. There are many fine vocal ensembles that sing perfectly in tune and enunciate well. The thing that stood out was their feeling of ensemble. They breathed together, each knew exactly what the other parts were doing and so could alter their dynamic and tone accordingly, and their voices complemented each other perfectly. Yes, you could tell that they had enjoyed an illustrious history and had a strong bond with each other, and their performance was still fresh and stimulating.
At intervals during the concert, I looked around the hall to see how audience members were reacting. Some were intently focussed on the performers, completely unaware of anyone else in the room. Others had their hands together and their eyes closed, equally as focussed but in a different way. It was magical to see an audience so enthralled by what they were listening to. I feel privileged to have been present at this concert, especially as I think it unlikely that I will have another chance to see the ensemble perform before they retire in December of this year. It’s a good job there is a wealth of great recordings by them I can dip into!
By: Paul Massey