After the faintest suggestion that the renowned a cappella vocal quartet was warming up in its opening item, thereafter all was in the fields of vocal Elysium.
The piece and the following one, French 13th century works by the ubiquitous ‘Anon’, were revelatory in their flowing melodic utterance given the Latin texts are religious; ergo, you might have expected them to be set as plainchant – not a semblance!
Even more remarkable, and the performance of it, was Ah! Gentle Jesu by an English composer known as Sheryngham (c1500), an extremely effective, extended verse/ refrain dialogue between a penitent sinner and Christ on the Cross.
As most people will know by now after 40 years, the Hilliard’s approach to early music does not follow fussy period performance practice but it is historically informed, as they say, and stylistically it sounded right.
The Medieval colour of the group’s vocal sound was ideal for the four traditional Armenian Sharakans arranged in the early 20th century by Vartapet Komitas, while more recent works in the concert were written for the Hilliard’s unified vocal prowess.
The most recent, from last year by Arvo Pärt with the single repeated line Most Holy Mother of God, save us, is a masterpiece of varying solo and unified harmonic sounds.
Katia Tchemberdji’s much more wordy and lengthy Aus dem Psalm 69 (2007) was full of dynamic vocal contrasts, a touch too many perhaps to appreciate in one hearing.
Wider contrasts and colour came in the form of five hymns and prayers Alexander Raskatov drew from the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom for Praise (1998) and set as sort of quasi-ritual incantations.
Eminently worthwhile works tailored to the Hilliard’s inner vocal virtuosity and blended homogenous sound, it remains to be seen if other groups have the wherewithal to take them up after the ensemble retires at the end of the year.