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The Hilliard EnsembleA Hilliard Songbook

Although by now almost habitually referred to as Britain's foremost early music vocal group, the Hilliard Ensemble (founded 1974) has long had an equal, and complementary, commitment to contemporary music. Its members have sought out new music that adapts itself to the group's blend of voices and, where necessary, commissioned works from composers they admire. In their recitals, century-spanning leaps - from John Cage, say, to Josquin Deprez (or vice versa), from Pärt to Perotin, from Holliger to Machaut, from Bryars to Purcell - are not all uncommon. ECM New Series has documented some of the ensemble's work with contemporary composers, with Arvo Pärt above all - see Litany, Miserere, Passio, Arbos - but also with Giya Kancheli (Abii ne viderem), and Gavin Bryars (Vita Nova), as well as the unclassifiable Officium project with improvising saxophonist Jan Garbarek. Now, in A Hilliard Songbook, a double album anthology, the group surveys the landscape of modern secular and sacred vocal music.

In conversation with the magazine Early Music Today, John Potter explained the rationale behind the polarities of the group's repertoire: "Our approach to new music grows directly out of our experience with early music, and we limit ourselves to an area where we can use our skills and interests in early music and apply them to the contemporary repertoire. It's interesting how much one can give to the other: in some ways, fifteenth century vocal style transfers much more easily to late twentieth century work than to anything in between. There's a region of contemporary writing, which lies between the fiercely complex old avant-garde and the more spare, stark post-modernism, that co-exists very happily with early music."

Of the new music for voices in A Hilliard Songbook, only four compositions were not written specifically for the Ensemble: nonetheless, And one of the Pharisees and Summa, both by Arvo Pärt, Michael Finnissy's Stabant autem iuxta crucem and Marton Feldman's Only, are all staples of the group's recitals.

The present collection opens with an eruption of energy, a startling attack on the physics of sound and the physicality of his instrument by double- bassist and composer/improvisor Barry Guy. Guy wrote Un coup de dés to a text by Mallarmé for the Ensemble, won the Hilliard Competition Prize of 1994 with it, and is 1996 composer-in-residence at the Hilliard Summer School. His guest role on A Hilliard Songbook is the latest unorthodox move in a biography full of seeming contradictions. The only member of the European improvising community consistently profiled in the Grove Dictionary, Guy studied with serialist composer Buxton Orr, has led the London Jazz Composers Orchestra since 1971, was principal bassist of Christopher Hogwood's Academy of Ancient Music for 12 years, has composed numerous concert works (including a Concerto for Orchestra, recently premiered by the City of London Sinfonia), and currently plays with Evan Parker's electro-acoustic ensemble (New Series debut due in 1997).

Knowing that the Hilliard Ensemble had named themselves after painter/jeweller/writer Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619), Piers Hellawell set texts from Hilliard's classic A Treatise Concerning The Arte Of Limning (c. 1600) for student groups at the Ensemble's Summer School, later adapting some pieces for vocal quartet. The premiere of Hellawell's Hilliard Songbook was given in St Peter's Church in London in May 1996 at a benefit for London Lighthouse, the organization which supports AIDS victims and their families. Born 1956, Hellawell was appointed composer-in-residence at Belfast University at the age of 24 and continues to teach there. His current musical style, often described as "musical irony", is viewed by the composer himself as a product of "a wider neo-classicism, a deliberate exit from the urban densities of modernism."

Michael Finnissy, born in London in 1946, is one of the key figures in the movement that journalists have termed "the New Complexity". He studied with Humphrey Searle who, in turn, had learned his craft as one of Webern's few pupils. Finnissy was appointed President of the International Society of Contemporary Music in 1990 and re-elected in 1993, and his work is performed and broadcast worldwide. He also has a reputation as an exceptional pianist, specializing in modern music - Elizabeth Lutyens, Judith Weir, Howard Skempton and Oliver Knussen being just a few of the composers who have written pieces for him. His Stabant autem iuxta crucem is from his Seven Sacred Motets and, untypically for a composer who has been described as "the arch-romantic of new English music" (Contact magazine), its score is marked "simply, without dramatizing."

Elizabeth Liddle (born 1952) wrote her Whale Rant while "obsessed" with Melville and Moby-Dick, and sets two excerpts from the nineteenth century classic, one being a hymn-text concerning Jonah and the Whale, the other one of Ahab's almost hallucinatory soliloquies. "The two texts work in contrary motion," Liddle explains, "with the hymn text going from damnation to redemption, from darkness to light, and the Ahab text, rejecting the possibility of redemption, going from light to darkness." In this Hilliard Songbook, the Rant finds a seaworthy companion-piece in Joanne Metcalf's Music for the Star of the Sea - the "star" being the Virgin Mary. Metcalf (born 1958) is another Hilliard Competition prizewinner, who employs devices from early music in her composition: "It recasts compositional procedures and gestures commonly found in medieval music: hocket, or the use of individual voices exchanging short melodic fragments to form a larger, more continuous pattern; harmonically colourful cross-relations; and a cantus firmus of underlying melody..."

John Casken was born in 1949 in the north of England where he has been based ever since, apart from three years in the early 70s when he studied in Poland. In Warsaw he was tutored by Dobrowolski and consulted with Witold Lutoslawski, a formative influence. He is currently Professor of Music at Manchester University. Quote: "The north has a quality I admire, a tough resilience." Many of his works are concerned with the landscape, painting and literature of the north of England; Sharp Thorne is an exception, incorporating as it does "The Lenten Offering", a poem by London-born author Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978).

Ivan Moody, born in 1964, is the youngest of the featured composers, represented in the anthology by two very different works: the Canticum Canticorum I (premiered by the Hilliard Ensemble in Munich a decade ago) and Endechas y Canciones, a group of three laments, completed in early 1996, which set Spanish poetry from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Moody speaks of the "interpenetration of physical and metaphysical worlds" in these texts; newcomers to his work may not be altogether surprised to learn that he studied with John Tavener. Almost all of his music is informed by the spiritual ethos of the Russian Orthodox Church of which he is a member - in this there are parallels with Tavener and with Pärt - and sacred vocal music forms the larger part of his prolific output.

Morton Feldman (1926-1987) was, of course, the undemonstrative iconoclast of the so-called New York School, many of his later works comprising washes of sound at the brink of silence. Only, a Rilke setting sung in A Hilliard Songbook by Rogers Covey-Crump alone is, apart from being an uncommonly pretty miniature, a modern-historical curio. It was written three years before Feldman fell under the spell of John Cage and revised, completely, his ideas about music. In Only, one has a glimpse of a very innocent Feldman, a composer quite unlike the mature artist who felt himself closer to the Abstract Expressionist painters than to the European music tradition.

The work of Estonian composer Veljo Tormis (born 1930) was introduced to a wider public via the release, in 1992, of Forgotten Peoples (ECM New Series 1459/60), a recording produced by former Hilliard Ensemble singer Paul Hillier. Of the composers from the Baltic States, Tormis has the strongest connections to folk music. As he puts it, "I do not use folk song, it is folk song that uses me. To me, folk music is not a means of self-expression; on the contrary, I feel the need to express the essence of folk music, its spirit, meaning and form." In the Forgotten Peoples song cycle, Tormis examined the epic ballads of the Izhorians while noting the similarities between these manifestations of the oral tradition and the great Finnish epic the Kalevala. Now he turns to the latter source for Kullervo's Message, a blood-stirring song with an implied rhythm of galloping hoofbeats, in which the beleaguered and world-weary hero of the Kalevala rides off to do battle with his enemies.

Fellow Estonian Arvo Pärt (born 1935) needs no introduction to New Series listeners. The Hilliard Ensemble has been performing his Summa (composed 1977) for many years now; it provided one of the defining moments in their 1986 Pärt/Perotin presentations, as a work pivotally situated between early polyphony and modern music, and its power is undiminished. And one of the Pharisees...was composed in 1992 and sets St Luke 7, 36-50, for countertenor, tenor and baritone. Piers Hellawell has observed that "the setting parallels medieval practise in a new way: Pärt sees the work as a mini-opera, and its singers represent the characters of a famous parable much in the manner of the medieval mystery plays, which dramatized biblical stories to widen their understanding."

On record the Hilliard Ensemble continue to preface Scottish composer James MacMillan's in hiding with the Gregorian hymn Adoro te devote, as they have done in concert, making plain one of the composer's sources. MacMillan (born 1959) views his short motet as an appendix to his trumpet concerto Epiclesis which explores "similar musical and theological territory". In the 1990s, MacMillan has moved ever further from what he perceives as the insular, "academic" avant-garde, harnessing Scottish folk music as one of several materials regularly employed in the quest for a more directly expressive style. As Keith Potter has noted, "the emotional impact of MacMillan's mature music has brought him wide attention. This gifted and thoughtful composer's works gain strength from being cultivated in Scottish soil, while their inner qualities allow them to speak eloquently across cultural divides".

Paul Robinson (born 1949) is, alongside Barry Guy and Joannne Metcalf, the third Hilliard Competition Prizewinner to be represented in this anthology. Robinson's Incantation takes Lord Byron's vitriolic curse as its text - it is surely one of the most powerful settings of Byron since Schoenberg's Ode to Napoleon - and revels in the characteristics of the Hilliard Ensemble's vocal sound, the distinct group identity born from the blending of individual approaches to the music. Robinson sums up the Hilliards' old/new dialectic in his modal piece which "attempts to integrate self-consciously adopted archaisms - phrygian cadences, isorhythm, musica ficta - with more modern-sounding harmonies arrived at experimentally."