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Hilliard Ensemble, classical review

Shoreditch Church, London

Best known for their recordings of Arvo Part and their collaborations with Jan Garbarek, the Hilliard Ensemble are disbanding after four decades, but they are prefacing this full-stop with a year of concerts which began – 40 years to the day since their debut performance - in Shoreditch Church.

And they used that event to premiere “Poor Yorick”, an intriguing a cappella work by the British composer Roger Marsh. The text was a literary jeu d’esprit, the word-setting was deceptively clever, and the musical effects were muted but oddly entrancing: floating harmonies over a mournful walking bass, and all in a modal idiom with a medieval tinge.

But medieval music is what this group have always excelled at and, with their current membership of four augmented by four returners from previous incarnations, they presented a lovely panorama, beginning with organum by Perotin and continuing – with dips into plainchant - through music’s liberation into polyphony with Victoria and Byrd. The vibrant freshness of their singing, particularly in the lullabys, had Chaucerian charm; the only false note came with a Britten Canticle, whose conscious artiness jarred with the heartfelt directness and simplicity of everything else. Why didn’t they include some Part instead?