Seeing both these ensembles live has been a dream of mine for a few years now, having been brought up with my father's love of the Hilliard Ensemble's collaborative recordings with jazz saxophonist Jan Gabarek. And what better place to be transported back in time with these early music experts than the Wigmore Hall. This evening was a feast of Gibbons, with a performance of the First Set of Madrigals and Motets of 5 Parts, apt for Viols and Voyces, which was published in 1612. This was juxtaposed with a world première by Nico Muhly, especially commissioned by the Wigmore Hall for this performance, inspired by these extraordinary artists.
Gibbons (1583–1625) was one of the most versatile English composers of his time, writing prolifically from keyboard, viol and voice. His set of madrigals include some of the best loved of the genre, including The Silver Swanne, which concluded tonight's programme. The set combines Italian and English vocal styles with a distinctive instrumental timbre, which alternately acted as accompaniment for the vocal group and as an independent body. The rich, sonorous blend of Fretwork was instantly striking in the first instrumental movement, Trust not too much, faire youth. The words which had inspired the viol consort sections were printed in full in the programme, which I thought was an intelligent idea, although the singing lines of the viols conveyed beautifully the meaning of the text.
The Hilliard Ensemble was joined by sopranos Julia Doyle and Julie Cooper, whose voices I thought were well balanced and a good match for the depth of the viols. During the full ensemble pieces, however, the men's voices were somewhat lost in the texture, which led to some indistinct polyphony at times. When the vocal ensemble was heard alone, the agile interplay between parts was much clearer and the blend, especially in Fair ladies that to love, was extremely impressive. The five-part madrigals were interspersed with some interesting solo songs and duets, accompanied by differing arrangements of the instrumental group. A highlight for me was Faire is the rose; the purity and control of Cooper's first entry was completely magical, and the spontaneous applause was well deserved.
We began the second half with the première of Muhly's My Days, a "ritualised memory piece" using text from Psalm 39 and an extract from a 17th-century account of Gibbons' own autopsy. In Muhly's notes about the piece, he says: "The piece has an idée fixe based on a minor scale with two possible resolutions, and many ornaments. In between iterations, the voices, in rhythmic unison, intone the psalm. It isn't until the autopsy text arrives that the voices begin to split into more elaborate, Gibbonsy verses and responses." It was evident that Muhly had studied these groups and their very particular soundworld in great detail, as the piece was perfectly suited to the clean, direct sound of the singers and both the precise ornamentation and tonal depth of the viols. I felt the Hilliard Ensemble were once more in their element here and thoroughly enjoyed this first performance of a work by an exciting young composer.
After a recital of such varying emotion, what better way to end the programme than with a wonderfully simple rendition of possibly Gibbons' best-known work, The Silver Swanne. The expressive music played first by the viols and then repeated by the voices was truly touching and I was pleased to hear it once more as the spontaneous encore. I left the Wigmore Hall with the feeling that not only had I satisfied a long-held desire to hear these ensembles in action, but I had discovered a new, fresh and extremely interesting composer who breathed life into instruments that can be easily stereotyped: a lovely treat.
The concert also includes the world première of a new work by Nico Muhly, inspired by Gibbons’s haunting soundworld.
Wigmore Hall36 Wigmore Street
London Greater London United Kingdom W1U 2BP