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?