A Hilliard Songbook-New Music for Voices
The Hilliard Ensemble have always had an interest in commissioning and performing works by living composers, but apart from a few high profile, major projects (such as their continuing involvement with Arvo Part), few of their ventures in the contemporary domain have found their way on to disc. This two-CD set is all the more welcome in that, in recent years, new works have assumed an even more prominent role in The Hilliard’s concert programmes. Though not exhaustive in its representation, “A Hilliard Songbook” (named after a song-cycle by Piers Hellawell) includes most of the prominent figures with whom the ensemble have been associated over the years (Part, MacMillan, Finnissy, Casken), along with younger or lesser-known composers whose works find committed advocates here. Of course, The Hilliards and their sound are usually associated with a very different repertory, so the pleasure in this collection is twofold: first the fascination of hearing a familiar ‘instrument’ in an unaccompanied setting and secondly, the extent to which these composers deal with the silent presence within that sound of nearly six centuries of early polyphony.
That presence is at its remotest in Barry Guy’s
The composers’ attitude to these references varies considerably; there is a certain pathos in MacMillan’s familiar harmonic gestures wandering rootlessly in search, perhaps, of a (new) home. In John Casken’s Sharp Thorne the pathos derives not from musical quotations but from the juxtaposition of a medieval English poem with a contemporary poem of related imagery – an intimation, no doubt, that little has changed in five, six, seven hundred years. At times, listening to this collection, I had the impression that a similar sentiment animates most of the pieces in “A Hilliard Songbook”. Nevertheless, the performances are of a standard that few living composers can hope for, and the more demanding selections are dispatched with commendable relish, and little hint of strain. Those who admire the ensemble’s inimitable sound can look forward to an issue of real interest.'