THE HILLIARD ENSEMBLE – TRANSEAMUS / ECM New Series 2408 player
Having recorded more than 20 albums for ECM since the mid-’80s, the Hilliard Ensemble caps its sublime discography before retirement with a final release: Transeamus: English Carols and Motets, a collection of polyphony – in two, three and four parts – from the 15th-century. The album’s main title translates as “we travel on,” fitting as a nod of goodbye from one of the most venturesome and beloved of classical vocal groups. Also fitting is the fact that this British vocal quartet’s very first recording included music from the court of Henry VIII, so Transeamus brings their odyssey through the ages full circle. The album includes many of the group’s favorite pieces from this era, including previously unrecorded items from its concert programs by the likes of John Plummer, Walter Lambe and William Cornysh. More of the album’s works are by composers rendered anonymous by time, yet all of this music is rich with enduring personality.
Hilliard Ensemble countertenor David James writes in his album note: “The sweet harmonies might appear uncomplicated, but this transparency of sound creates a cumulative effect that is mesmerizing. The album ends with ‘Ah gentle Jesu.’ We know the composer’s name, Sheryngham, but virtually nothing else. On paper, it is a simple dialogue between Christ on the cross and a penitent sinner; however, the intensity of the music is so overwhelming that, from our experience in concert, both listener and performer are left in stunned silence.”
Transeamus includes several ancient carols on a Christmas theme, including ‘Marvel Not Joseph’, ‘Ah! My Dear Son’ and ‘There Is No Rose’. But the lyrical matter varies through the album. Hilliard baritone Gordon Jones explains: “The subject of the carol at this time is mixed, but it’s usually Christmas, the Virgin Mary and the Saints. The type of carol represented on this album is a sacred – but probably non-liturgical – piece in Latin and/or English. They were in popular use and are sometimes associated with dance. It has been suggested, because of their form – burden/refrain, similar to the continental rondeau – that they were used as processional pieces in church. Yet the evidence for this seems to be vanishingly slim. The pieces about St. Thomas manage to weave matters of English history and politics into the texts.”
About the repertoire, James adds: “This is music that we were born and bred to sing – it’s quintessentially English. We started singing many of these pieces as boys in choirs, so singing this music is for us like going home.”
The Hilliard Ensemble recorded Transeamus at their favourite recording venue, the Alpine monastery of St. Gerold in Austria, a stone’s throw over the border from Switzerland. “Most of our ECM albums have been recorded in the chapel at St. Gerold,” James explains. “It’s very quiet, being high up in the mountains – a wonderful place for recording our kind of music. It’s a very intimate space, and with just the four of us in there, it gives the music a warm sound. I think it’s the sound we have carried with us – or within us – wherever we travelled, in a way.”
Reflecting on decades of documenting music from the Middle Ages to modern times for ECM, James says: “We’ve been blessed to only record music that we really wanted to record – projects based not on commercial criteria but rather on artistic impulse. Manfred Eicher wanted us to propose music to him, and if he agreed that it seemed special and right at the time, we were off to record – even with some very obscure repertoire that another label might not have been so excited about. Manfred’s idea was always, ‘If this music moves me, then it will surely move other people.’ That sort of approach has been fantastically inspiring for the Hilliard Ensemble over the years and, I hope, for listeners around the world for many years to come.”
The Hilliard Ensemble
The Hilliard Ensemble gave its first concert on Dec. 11, 1973, in London. Exactly 40 years later, on Dec. 11, 2013, the group kicked off its final year with a performance at the London Spitalfields Festival, with the program including repertoire sung at that very first concert four decades before – music by Byrd and Britten – as well as Pérotin, Victoria, Josquin des Prés and a new composition written for the group by Roger Marsh, Poor Yorrick. The Marsh piece is for eight voices, and the current Hilliard Ensemble augmented itself with former members John Potter, John Leigh Nixon, Paul Elliott and Errol Girdlestone.
Over the decades, ECM has released acclaimed Hilliard Ensemble recordings of music by Pérotin, Machaut, Gesualdo, Lassus, Gombert, Frye, Tye, Sheppard, Tallis, Victoria, Palestrina and J.S. Bach, among others, as well as such albums as Codex Specialnik, featuring music from a Prague manuscript circa 1500. ECM has also released Hilliard recordings of music by such contemporary composers as Arvo Pärt, Gavin Bryars, Giya Kancheli, Tigran Mansurian, Terje Rypdal, Alexander Raskatov, Boris Yoffe, Ivan Moody, Barry Guy, Veljo Tormis, Michael Finnissy and Stephen Hartke. That’s not to mention the group’s pioneering and best-selling collaborations with saxophonist Jan Garbarek: Officium (1994), Mnemosyne (1999) and Officium Novum (2010).
Throughout 2014, the Hilliard Ensemble has toured widely, from Europe, Australia and Japan to the U.S. and Canada. Events have included the revival of Heiner Goebbels’ music theater piece for the group, I went to the house but did not enter, at the Lyon Opera House in France. In October, November and December, Garbarek will join the quartet for a last extensive series of Officium concerts across Europe – events that The Guardian has previously called “mesmerizing.” The Hilliard Ensemble’s final concert will be Dec. 20, 2014, at London’s Wigmore Hall.