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Press reviews

Excerpts from the reviews published after the festival

Introduction of an interview with the Hilliard Ensemble, 28 August 2007

On the 27 August Börzsöny Baroque Days’ last concert, at the same time the one with the greatest name took place in the Dominican Church of Vác. The Hilliard Ensemble, who performed there, are a bit similar and a bit different from the King’s Singers...

They are at least as famous and as good as the latter. They sing medieval and renaissance works, well-known and less-known ones as well, but they do not remain aloof from twentieth century composers either. And when they want to be a bit more popular, they join jazz musicians like Norwegian saxophone player Jan Garbarek, who has already been to Hungary several times, or the Norwegian Terje Rypdal, who they started to work with in the last years. Now, in front of the audience taking the last extra seats of the jam-packed church they chose from early composers, but there was a chance to hear lighter, more modern pieces too, among the encores.

Péter Varga

“Mysterious Circuit in the Church” — excerpt
Magyar Nemzet (“Hungarian Nation” — a Budapest quality newspaper)
30 August 2007

[...] For the Monday closing concert in the Dominican Church of Vác the Hilliard Ensemble have arrived right from Rostock: four English gentlemen, who are familiar with medieval, renaissance and baroque music as well as contemporary music. They have made CDs with Arvo Pärt, Jan Garbarek and they are considered to be the best male vocal group in the world. They performed the renaissance composer, Guillaume Dufay’s mass “Se la face ay pale” (Why is your face so pale?), and between the movements they sang motets by a composer from the renaissance generation after Dufay, Josquin de Pres, together with two pieces from the St. Martial codex.

On the evening of their concert the large church was packed with clergymen, musicians, composers, music lovers, and the air was filled with the unmistakably excited, thick, soft and cheerful buzz.

The Hilliards (David James — counter-tenor, Rogers Covey-Crump — tenor, Steven Harold — tenor and Gordon Jones — baritone) seemed to be as modest and plain live as on their photos. They came in, put out their music sheets and started singing the Kyrie. One of them must have had a cold — gave a little cough, but then music overcame the virus and four soaring, bright, twinkling, intertwining male voices filled the unusually sultry sacred space.

The four gentlemen looked surprised when the audience first burst out in enthusiastic applause, but then they nodded “That’s fine” and sang on with sparkling eyes.

During the break the buzz moved to the main square outside the church. A young modern “expert” beside me was saying that he liked the way the Hilliard were singing, but he missed something to top the whole thing with. Ecclesiastical music is not at all marked with the aggression, egoism or orgiastic interpretation of rock music, but it can give us something different, something more at the concerts too. It became obvious after the break. Studying the audience I could see that most of them relaxed and stopped looking at their running programme, not minding that they “had lost the thread”. They got more and more absorbed in the music, rocking gently on their seats. And in the meantime, in a mysterious way, the audience and the ensemble got in perfect harmony, in an extraordinary intimacy. The circuit closed by the last movement, the Agnus Dei. And then came the two encores: contemporary English and American compositions. What was to come? The slowly approaching applause from the back rows, swelling into rapturous — in a church even the applause sounds differently from one in a concert hall.

The Hilliard Ensemble, having given their fourth concert in Hungary, travelled to Cracow to collect some more encouraging experience from the music loving audience in Central-Eastern Europe.

Klára Varga

Élet és Irodalom (“Life and Literature” — a Hungarian weekly newspaper of literature and social life)
31 August 2007

As it reads in one medieval tract of the busy Saint Martial monastery, near the pilgrims’ route to Santiago de Compostela, owning important sources of early written polyphony: in order to be able to compile an organum (a polyphonic part of a movement, following strict rules) a man must know three things: how to start, how to lead on and how to finish the musical process. Although this observation seems to be true in connection with creating any logical structure, in case of the Hilliard Ensemble it is not easy to determine the time of the beginning.The problem may be compared to that of the English lawn: it does not obviously need anything but to be watered and mowed, but for at least 500 years! Like many things on the British Isles, Anglican choral culture has had a similar situation in the last five centuries: it developed from the 16th century Catholic practice smoothly, and preserved its qualities with self-confident care despite the different taste of the successive music styles. The sound must have changed a lot through the centuries, and we will hardly learn what kind of voice training techniques or tones were used in the Elizabethan period or during the Hundred Years’ War. Nevertheless, the tradition of these church choirs, leaving behind everyday musical routines, and their sound image forming slowly and naturally through the simple copying methods, have played a very important part in creating choirs and vocal ensembles that, using unusually cold and fresh tones, have become the models and inspiring sources of 20th century historical performing practice.

Among them, the Hilliard Ensemble —having a changing number of members depending on the voices in the pieces to be performed, but at least with four male singers— became one of the most renown and popular groups of the 1980—90s. Their recordings and concerts made them well-known as master interpreters of mainly pre-baroque polyphony and contemporary music. Their impossibly even, slender and flexible, crystal-clear and bright sound is perfectly siutable to throw light upon the texture of linearly intertwining voices of vocal polyphony or upon the details serving as significant structural element of the sophisticated and compound sound of contemporary choral works. Their programmes always prove to be the result of profound intellectual work, often going beyond the frames of a concert, forming it into inconceivable, undividedly closed, yet floating rites of music.

The ensemble’s programme of 27 August in the Dominican Church in Vác (David James, Rogers Covey-Crump, Steven Harrold and Gordon Jones performed at the closing concert of the 4th Börzsöny Baroque Days) was as sophisticated as usual, although at first we could find it relatively loosely-structured, since the Josquin motets and the compositions from one exisiting St. Martial book were inserted between the Dufay Mass movements, composed on the popular 15th century chanson “Se la face ay pale”. The pieces did not follow the liturgical order of the ecclesiastical year, and despite making some thematic effort we could hardly see any purpose in making the Gloria fall into the depth of the De profundis, and getting the arrangement to arrive in the Agnus Dei through the Easter sequence, the Credo, a motet about Mary and the birth of Christ. However, during the performance we could experience a completely different interpretation. At this concert Western, written polyphony proved to be preserver of the sacredness of words, decoration, expansion and explanation of sacred passages. At the same time it did not ignore the difference between words of the strictly ritual mass and those of the motet, not closely belonging to the liturgy and admitting a free spiritual life. It did not either ignore the decades that separated the two composers, making them representatives of two completely different —although for us, in the 20th century, not easily distinguishable— relationships between words and music. The inexorable logic of Dufay’s complicated patterns, the magic of fascinatingly intertwining linearity with its chant-like rhythm became the feast of sounding the word, the glory of the power of formal perfection. Beside them Josquin’s nimbly counterpointed sentences seemed to be like apostles, who do not conjure up, but give evidence of sacredness with the beautiful and sensuous power of words and the rhetoric means of sweetness of fascination and weight of astonishment.

Zsuzsanna Rákai

Concert of the Hilliard Ensemble
Bartók Rádió (Hungarian Radio’s classical music channel) — Új Zenei Újság (“New Music News” — a weekly concert review magazine)
2 September 2007

We have not yet got used to a world-famous music group visiting Hungary without giving a concert in Budapest. Last year, for example, it caused a sensation that the Italian Il Giardino Armonico performed in Bélapátfalva [editor’s note: a small village in north-east Hungary with a beautiful abbey where there have been early music courses for years]. The same thing happened now, when the English The Hilliard Ensemble performed in Vác. I cannot really imagine their Cambridge rival, the King’s Singers, who also gave a concert recently in Hungary, singing their programme of evergreens and brilliant vocal burlesques in a similar ambience, for a relatively small audience like in this church, at least compared to the auditorium of the Academy of Music. And if we compare these two unequalled ensembles, another thing we could not imagine would be the King’s Singers performing only pieces of the pre-baroque polyphony at a concert, or the Hilliard Ensemble using funny gestures with their sophisticated singing.

All in all, The Hilliard Ensemble is an introvert formation. The average age of the four men may be over 50, nothing we could expect looking at the photos on the posters and booklets about the 4th Börzsöny Baroque Days. Perhaps that was why they could not present that unbelievable perfection of voices and technique that we can enjoy on their recordings from the ‘70—80s. Sometimes slightly less controlled or more colourless tones were creeping in. Nevertheless, it seems that rusty vocal cords cannot beat the typical English way of choral singing. Despite the problems with the range of voice, the ensemble compiled a nearly two-hour programme, and they sounded Dufay's mass movements and the Josquin motets in between in such a smooth and balanced way that it could have been the envy of any singer in their prime.

Their programme must have been the result of a very careful choice, although the motets between the mass movements, and the pieces from the St.Martial codex, an important source of early written polyphony, did not follow the liturgical order, since either Easter or Christmas texts were sung as well. The aim of the ensemble may have been to present the music of that age in a varied way.

These 15th century pieces are not part of the Hungarian repertory, although there are choirs, sometimes very good ones, who would like to fill this gap. Whereas we can easily distinguish the symphonies by Beethoven and Brahms, only a narrower circle of professional musicians are able to do the same with works by Josquin and Dufay, though the age difference is quite the same between them. Yet there were a lot of changes at that time, as in the previous century. The movements from the St. Martial codex, for instance, are full of incredibly great emotions to describe the sacred words. Then, by the time of Dufay, this kind of passion had disappeared. At least we could feel so from the Hilliard's presentation. This music is only the decoration or perhaps interpretation of the sacred words, but it never illustrates. What is important is the linearly intertwining texture. The key word is linear. Accordingly, although the four singers were perfectly breathing together, and let each other dominate, or else, emphasise the then most important voice, the stress was put on the line of each voice. It was not by accident that they did almost not look at each other during the whole concert. Believe me, I was sharply watching them but could notice only one such occasion. They were watching the notes, or a member of the audience, the decoration of the church, but they did not use any choir routines such as looking at each other, cueing in or sounding the keynote. We can rarely experience such intensive and concentrated attention to each other. Neither can we hear such a varied, inspired and colourful performance of the works by Dufay and Josquin. We had better deal more with such an extraordinary repertoire.

Márta Katona

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