The Hilliards have been edging towards their disbandment for a long time now, but they went out with all guns blazing.
For forty years these four gents in grey suits - likened on one occasion to a bunch of used-car salesmen – have set the pace in a cappella music both medieval and modern, while establishing themselves as stars on the jazz circuit.
By exhuming forgotten gems and commissioning new ones they have vastly expanded the a cappella repertoire, and – as evidenced by the strings of grateful posts following their YouTube performance of Arvo Part’s ‘Most Holy Mother of God’ – they’ve tapped into some very dark reservoirs of emotion.
Yet they set out with no such expectations. They had named themselves after the Elizabethan miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard, a figure contemporaneous with the music they intended to sing, whose detailed perfection was the visual equivalent of what they wanted to realise in sound, but they didn’t want to inhabit the early-music ghetto.
Their first big break came in 1986 when Arvo Part – then little-known – turned up at a recording session of his Passio: love at first hearing, and the precursor of more Part recordings. Their next break came when producer Manfred Eicher introduced them to the Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek: thus saxed up, the medieval polyphony of Perotin became a chart-buster.
And it was with Perotin’s ‘Viderunt omnes’ – the oldest extant four-voice work – that the Hilliards opened their final recital. As they sang their way through the highlights of their rediscoveries and commissions, one realised anew what it was that has made their art unique: a lack of vanity, full-blooded theatricality and an absolute purity of sound.
Thus did we revisit the extraordinary pieces they had coaxed out of Piers Hellawell, Roger Marsh, and Heiner Goebbels, and thus did we re-encounter the poignantly understated passion of Sheryngham’s ‘Ah, gentle Jesu’.
And with one short encore they were gone, leaving the musical world – and one composer in particular – substantially richer for their presence. A triumphant adieu - and a sad one.