Jan Garbarek and Hilliard Ensemble (CD Review)

Remember Me, My Dear (ECM, 2019).

Remember Me, My Dear

Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble

ECM New Series 2625

The Hilliard Ensemble disbanded five years ago. Happily, they made a few recordings for ECM that have allowed listeners to continue to enjoy new music from them. Remember Me, My Dear was recorded on their last tour in 2014 at the Collegiate Church in Bellinzona, Switzerland. It celebrates a quarter century of collaboration, beginning with the Officium album, released in 1994 to wide acclaim.

As with their previous collaborations, Remember Me, My Dear features both early music by composers such as Hildegard von Bingen, Pérotin, and the ever ubiquitous Anonymous, as well as twentieth/twenty-first century pieces by Arvo Pärt, Komitas, and Russian liturgical composer Nikolay Kedrov. Often the blending of resources is impressive. Garbarek creates imitative lines that further elaborate Kedrov’s “Litany” and revels in the modal scales found in “Procedentem Sponsum.” The saxophonist solos over the Hilliard Ensemble singing suavely arranged jazz chords on his original “Allting Finns.”

Elsewhere, there is a juxtaposition of disparate elements. On an Agnus Dei by the Renaissance composer Antoine Brumel, the counterpoint from the voices serves as a backdrop for cascading runs by Garbarek. In the title track, which originally appeared on the studio album Mnemosyne, a homophonic chanson is elaborated with saxophone filigrees between phrases.

Garbarek’s original “We are the Stars” is a rapturous piece, with soprano saxophone contributing altissimo register climaxes that are shadowed by countertenor David James in his own upper register. Guilliame Le Rouge’s fifteenth century chanson Se je fayz deuil ideally presents the autumnal warmth of the quartet’s sound in the Collegiate Church’s generous acoustic. Pérotin’s Alleluia Navitas provides a joyous colloquy between Garbarek and the singers. Who knew that medieval organum could so successfully afford rollicking, bluesy rejoinders?

Remember, My Dear amply demonstrates that, until the end of their work together, the Hilliard Ensemble remained in fine voice.  It is always difficult to say goodbye to a group that has played such a pivotal role in one’s study and enjoyment of music. The post-disbandment releases shared on ECM have been a generous surplus. The Hilliard Ensemble, and their collaboration with Garbarek, will be dearly remembered for a long time to come.

-Christian Carey

Tallis Scholars Premiere Nico Muhly in Midtown

Tallis Scholars: A Renaissance Christmas

Tallis Scholars. Photo: Nick Rutter.

Miller Theatre Early Music Series

Church of St. Mary the Virgin

December 1, 2018

Published on Sequenza 21

By Christian Carey

NEW YORK – The Tallis Scholars, directed by Peter Phillips, made their annual appearance in New York as part of Miller Theatre’s Early Music series at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Midtown. The program was billed as a dual celebration — the 45th anniversary of the Tallis Scholars and Miller Theatre’s 30th anniversary season.

In honor of the occasion, Miller Theatre commissioned a new piece for the Tallis Scholars by composer Nico Muhly. Muhly has, of late, garnered a great deal of attention for two Metropolitan Opera commissions  — Two Boys and Marnie — but he often talks about his first love being choral music (he began his musical career as a chorister). Muhly’s choral works are exquisitely crafted and texturally luminous. Rough Notes (2018), his new piece for the concert at St. Mary’s, took its texts from two diary entries by Robert Falcon Scott, written near the end of his ill-fated voyage to Antarctica. The first excerpt describes the aurora australis, providing words such as “arches, bands, and curtains”  that are ripe for colorful musical setting. The second was Scott’s stoic expression of confidence in his team’s ability to accept their impending deaths with dignity. Muhly’s use of lush cluster chords in the first section gave way to more sharply etched, but still glinting, harmonies in the second, as well as poignantly arcing melodies. The divided choir of ten voices was skilfully overlapped to sound like many times that number. It is always fascinating to hear the Tallis Scholars switch centuries, and thus style, to perform contemporary repertoire; for instance, their CD of Arvo Pärt’s music is a treasure. One hopes that they might collaborate on a recording with Muhly in the future.

The rest of the program was of considerably earlier music, but ranged widely in chronology. The earliest piece was an elegant and under-heralded Magnificat setting by John Nesbett from the late Fifteenth century that is found in the Eton Choirbook. Chant passages give way to various fragments of the ensemble that pit low register vs. high for much of the piece. It culminates by finally bringing all the voices together in a rousing climax. The Tallis Scholars has, of yet, not recorded Nesbett, but Peter Phillips has committed the Magnificat to disc in an inspired performance with the Choir of Merton College, Oxford (The Marian Collection, Delphian, 2014).  

Palestrina’s motet Hodie Christus natus est, and the eponymous parody mass which uses this as its source material, were the centerpiece of the concert. The motet was performed jubilantly and with abundant clarity. The mass is one of Palestrina’s finest. He took the natural zest of its source material, added plenty of contrapuntal elaborations, and made subtle shifts to supply a thoughtful rendition of the text. Although we are, in terms of the liturgical calendar, in the midst of the reflective period of Advent, being propelled forward to the midst of some of the most ebullient yet substantial Christmas music of the Renaissance was a welcome inauguration of the season.

The two works that concluded the concert dealt with different aspects of the Christmas story. William Byrd’s Lullaby is actually quite an unsettling piece; its text deals with the Slaughter of the Innocents as ordered by Herod. One is left to imagine the infant Jesus being consoled by Mary and Joseph in the midst of their flight from persecution. Byrd composed it in the Sixteenth century (it was published in 1588), but Lullaby was the piece on the concert most tailored to this moment, evoking concerns of our time: the plight of refugees, the slaughter of innocent bystanders by acts of senseless aggression: particularly the vulnerability of children to indiscriminate bombing abroad and the epidemic of gun violence in our own country.

The last piece returned to a festive spirit and brought the Tallis Scholars to the cusp of the Baroque with Hieronymus Praetorius’s Magnificat V with interpolations of two carols: Joseph lieber, Joseph mein and In dulci jubilo. During the Christmas season, interspersing carols and sections of the Magnificat was a standard practice in Baroque-era Lutheran churches; J.S. Bach might even have done so in the services he led at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. Praetorius plus two carols gave the Tallis Scholars an opportunity to share three of their most-performed Christmas pieces. From seemingly effortless floating high notes to sonorous bass singing, with tons of deftly rendered imitative passages in the inner voices, the group made a glorious sound. One eagerly awaits their return to New York during their 46th season.

New York Polyphony at St. Mary’s

New York Polyphony Photo: Chris Owyoung
New York Polyphony
Photo: Chris Owyoung

New York Polyphony sings works by Ivan Moody and Giovanni Perluigi da Palestrina

Miller Theatre’s Early Music series at Church of St. Mary the Virgin

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Sequenza 21

by Christian Carey

NEW YORK – As part of Miller Theatre’s Early Music series, the male vocal quartet New York Polyphony (Geoffrey Williams, countertenor; Steven Caldicott Wilson, tenor; Christopher Dylan Herbert, baritone; and Craig Phillips, bass-baritone) celebrated their ensemble’s tenth anniversary with a concert at Church of St. Mary the Virgin on Saturday, January 21st. Speaking from the stage, the group acknowledged their long relationship with both Miller Theatre and St.Mary’s; they have appeared on a number of concerts curated by Miller and began their association when they were singers in the choir at the church. The concert began with Sicut cervus, a seamlessly beautiful motet by the evening’s star composer, Giovanni Perluigi da Palestrina.

For the occasion, New York Polyphony commissioned a new work that received its world premiere. Ivan Moody’s Vespers Sequence demonstrates his abiding interest in incorporating music and liturgical practices from the Orthodox church into his composition language. In addition to settings in English from Protestant and Catholic liturgies (St. Mary’s is an Anglo-Catholic Episcopal church), the piece featured chant and texts from the Russian, Serbian, and Greek traditions. In his program notes, Moody even provided a connection to Jewish liturgical practices in one of the psalms he chose to set. However, and fittingly for the location, special attention was paid to Marian texts: the piece culminates in a lustrous rendition of Rejoice, Virgin Mother of God, the Byzantine rite version of “Ave Maria.” Moody juxtaposes chant with chords featuring stacked seconds and fifths, which provide the proceedings with a shimmering quality. Another distinctive part of his language is the use of canon and other imitative passages to overlay melodic material into polytonal or polymodal pile-ups, again allowing dissonance to season the chant-inspired atmosphere. It is an often haunting and always elegantly written piece.

bis-2203

Like Sicut cervus, all of the selections on the second half of the concert were by Palestrina; all were also programmed on New York Polyphony’s latest BIS CD, Roma Aeterna. This segment featured the core quartet alongside three additional singers: Timothy Keeler, countertenor; Andrew Fuchs, tenor; and Jonathon Woody, bass-baritone. Clearly there was an affinity among the entire group’s membership; the additional trio’s tone quality and flowing legato fit right in with the New York Polyphony “sound.” Tu es Petrus, a six-part motet, was rendered in exuberant fashion. It was followed by the concert, and the compact disc’s, centerpiece, one of the most famous and beloved pieces of the Sixteenth century: Missa Papae Marcelli by Palestrina. Roma Aeterna is the first recording of this piece of which I am aware to feature countertenors, rather than trebles or sopranos, on the top lines of the mass. Herein lies a choice that changes the entire sound world of the piece. Williams is a countertenor of the alto, rather than male soprano, variety. And while there is little consensus on absolute pitch in the Renaissance, this leads to a transposition of the mass that is lower than the norm. Thus, where one was previously accustomed to bright sonorities and bustling rhythmic activity, New York Polyphony instead accentuated sonorousness, lyricism, and a supple gentleness. They provide an entirely different, and often appealing, version of this masterwork.

The audience’s applause demanded an encore, and the quartet complied, but with a somewhat out-of-season selection: the Christmas folksong “I Wonder as I Wander,” arranged by Williams. While it was well performed, it ended the evening in somewhat curious fashion. I wouldn’t have minded another Palestrina motet or a reprise of Moody’s “O Gladsome Light” in its place.

Blue Heron at Corpus Christi Church (Concert Review)

Photo: Liz Linder.
Blue Heron. Photo: Liz Linder.

Blue Heron at Corpus Christi Church

Sequenza 21

By Christian Carey

 

NEW YORK – On December 18th, Boston-based early music ensemble Blue Heron appeared at Corpus Christi Church as part of Music Before 1800’s series there. Their program, titled “Christmas at the Courts of 15th century France and Burgundy,” featured polyphony and plainchant that celebrated the Advent and Christmas seasons. Led by Scott Metcalfe, the fifteen-person ensemble was frequently broken into subsets and often sang without use of a conductor. Metcalfe instead led much of the proceedings from behind a harp or alongside the singers, setting the pace in alternatim hymn settings by Guilliame Du Fay, antiphonal pieces with a large group of unison singers and a smaller group of soloists.

 

The first half of the concert featured music based on the O Antiphons, a collection of eight melodies that fall in the liturgical calendar as the chants that lead us from Advent to Christmas. Each verse of the famous hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” features text from one of these antiphons. The polyphonic pieces that followed the chants employed material associated with the O Antiphons. Jacob Obrecht’s Factor Orbis quoted two antiphons, as well as a plethora of other texts and tunes, including a secular one bound to please the composer’s patron. Josquin Desprez’s O Virgo Virginum setting focused on just one antiphon, the eponymous eighth chant reserved for Christmas Eve in the Medieval Church (most denominations have since winnowed the number of O Antiphons from eight to seven in their respective liturgies). A six-part motet, O Virgo Virginum features stirring antiphonal passages for two trios and a veritable tapestry of interwoven short melodic motifs sung against the chant. Ave Maria gratia plena, by Antoine Brumel, was sung by three of the women of Blue Heron, providing an attractive timbral contrast to the preceding male-dominated selections.

 

In the Christmas section of the concert, split among the two halves of the program, the five-voice motet O admirabile commercium/Verbum caro factus est by Johannes Regis served as a centerpiece, with two other pieces that emulated it presented as well: the aforementioned Obrecht motet, and Brumel’s Nato canunt omnia. Like Factor Orbis, the other two motets featured multiple texts, chants, and interwoven melodies. Blue Heron presented these mélanges of material with enviable skill, allowing the complex counterpoint to come through with abundant clarity.

Scott Metcalfe. Photo: Liz Linder.
Scott Metcalfe.
Photo: Liz Linder.

To celebrate New Year’s Day, nobles from Fifteenth century French and Burgundian courts exchanged lavish presents, including commissioned vocal works. In a section spotlighting these gifts, called estraines, the audience was treated to an assortment of chansons by Dufay, Nicholas Grenon, Guilliame Malbeque, Baude Cordier, Johanna Tinctoris, and Gilles Binchois. For these selections, instrumentalists joined Blue Heron: Metcalfe playing harp, Laura Jeppesen vielle and rebec, and Charles Weaver lute. The variety of textures obtained by the various ensemble groupings in this section of the program was lavishly multifaceted.

 

Likely the earliest of the selections on the program (apart from the encore), Johannes Ciconia’s Gloria Spiritus et alme was redolent in Lydian cadences. The resulting raised fourths and heightened sense of dissonance gave Blue Heron the opportunity to show off their use of just intonation in particularly splendorous fashion. Chords shimmered and melodic lines underscored the slightly unequal nature of the temperament’s half steps. It made for an extraordinary sound world. On the other end of the chronological spectrum, Adrian Willaert’s Sixteenth century motet Praeter rerum seriem featured seven-voice counterpoint. The thickened textures contained chant in a three-voice canon and sumptuous doublings of chord tones from the other four voices. The performance was truly transportative. As Metcalfe’s informative program notes pointed out, the piece’s seven-voice texture had another component of showmanship besides the obvious requisite compositional virtuosity: it contains one more voice than Josquin’s motet on the same text.

 

The concert ended with an encore from the Fourteenth century: Laudemus cum Armonia. The entire cohort of musicians raised their voices in song, making a most thrilling sound. It was an impressive end to a superlative performance.

_________

The next concert on Music Before 1800’s series is on Sunday, January 15, 2017 at 4 PM, when baritone Jesse Blumberg joins instrumental ensemble ACRONYM in a program devoted to music by Johann Rosenmüller. Blue Heron returns to Corpus Christi on October first: the week before my birthday. I certainly plan to make it my business to hear them again.