On Wednesday night, Garbarek and the Hilliards returned to King's College for the European concert premiere of Mnemosyne, Officium's successor. The new album, which is a double, is both longer and more varied than its predecessor, with a repertoire that spans 2,000 years, three continents and a number of different forms, from fragments of folk songs to a native American dance.
The basic pattern, however, is still the same as before: the Hilliard's sublime, rather ecclesiastical-sounding voices sing, while Garbarek intones odd, oblique shots across their bows with his saxophone.
In performance, the combination of the majesty of the venue and the beauty of the music cast a powerful aesthetic spell. The music began with silence, and the Hilliards gathered on stage (well, a makeshift platform in front of the mighty pipe organ) and then commenced to murmur. Slowly, the faint susurrus grew in volume until they began to fill the air.
When the counter-tenor voice of David James - one of the most beautiful sounds in the world - at last came in to join them, you could almost feel the whole audience catch their breath in wonder. Garbarek's first few peeps on the curved soprano sax that he played for almost all of the programme, indicated immediately the new and more subtle role that he has chosen to play for Mnemosyne.
The concert followed the course of the album and it was an often entrancingly beautiful experience, although there has to be a doubt over how much pure beauty one is actually capable of appreciating. After a while, the law of diminishing returns begins to set in and you cease to be sent into transports of delight by every new song. There's no conflict, little drama, and not much to look at once you've marvelled at the fan vaulting several times, checked out Garbarek's leonine profile and watched the Hilliards go up the nave and down the chancel. About an hour's length would probably be sufficient, and at 80 minutes the programme was rather too much of a good thing.
The star of the show surely had to be the venue itself and the way the musicians learnt to play it as if it were another instrument, with both Garbarek and the Hilliards engineering some astonishing effects by positioning themselves at different corners of the building. The end, when it came, was a formidable coup de theatre. As the musicians disappeared down the aisle towards the altar, the sound disappeared with them in a slow fade to pulpit.
The Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Garbarek return to the UK in November for concerts of `Mnemosyne' in Birmingham (14, Symphony Hall) , London (16, Royal Albert Hall) Brighton (18, St Bartholomew's Church) and Durham Cathedral (20)
See the review of `Mnemosyne' in Compact Collection, left