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“If clarity is a virtue, these people are saints”, wrote France’s Nouvel Oberservateur about the Hilliard Ensemble when their interpretation of Bach’s motets was released in spring 2007. “Never have these shining works sounded more beautiful” commented Die Zeit while the Guardian observed a “supremely musical” rendering, “overflowing with food for thought”. Last November the ensemble received a certificate of honour for their artistic achievements by the jury of Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik, the Prize of German Record Critics.

As commonly known, the Hilliard Ensemble’s repertoire ranges from Perotin to Erkki-Sven Tüür, from Guillaume de Machaut to German composer Heiner Goebbels whose new music theatre project, due for first performance in Lausanne this summer, will feature the four singers. British music however marks a relatively small component of their programs. For the first time after the much-acclaimed Tallis-record The Lamentations of Jeremiah and the CD with works by 15th-century-composer Walter Frye (released in 1993) the present production offers an opportunity to listen to performances of music from the precious English a cappella repertoire. Thomas Tallis (c. 1505 – 1585), Christopher Tye (c. 1505 – c. 1575) and John Sheppard (c. 1515 – 1558) were active during a period when Britain swung violently between Catholicism and Protestantism.

While Henry VIII, who broke ties with Rome, remained Catholic in liturgical taste, his successor, Edward VI introduced a puritanical Protestant regime, to considerable effect on church music. Queen Mary, on the other hand, restored a fervent Catholicism, and only when Elizabeth mounted the throne in 1558, a moderately Protestant compromise was reached. Composers thus had to constantly adapt to the liturgical changes, and all three featuring on this CD both profited from the ensuing musical developments and shaped them themselves. In his liner notes David Skinner – he prepared the scores and offered academic advice for this programme – points out: “The Reformation, it transpires, was a very good thing for music: it forced composers to explore a variety of compositional techniques, and, most importantly, how better to set a text. It was these skills, developed, tried and tested by the likes of Tye, Sheppard and Tallis that set the foundation for the next generation of composers.” Like on most of the previous Hilliard-albums, the programme is carefully assembled: Tye’s “Missa Sine Nomine” serves as the backbone for a suite of responds, antiphones and anthems by the three English composers.

The Hilliard Ensemble

For more than 30 years the Hilliard Ensemble has been known as one of the most outstanding vocal groups. The collaboration between the English a cappella quartet and the Munich based label began in 1986 with a contribution to Arvo Pärt’s “Arbos” and subsequently led to unanimously praised artistic achievements and popular successes in the fields of old and new music alike.

The ensemble’s projects with improvising saxophonist Jan Garbarek, including the million-selling “Officium” and its sequel “Mnemosyne” have been a unique success, and the collaboration continues to evolve with each yearly tour. The Hilliard Ensemble’s joint project with violinist Christoph Poppen, “Morimur”, based on the Bach research of Helga Thoene, intrigued many thousands of listeners around the world. The Poppen/Hilliard association continued with “Ricercar”, recorded 2001, exploring musical and spiritual affinities between Bach and Webern.

Composers including Barry Guy, Ivan Moody, Veljo Tormis and of course Arvo Pärt have written for the Hilliards. On “Lamentate”, a recording with new works by Pärt released in September 2005, the ensemble can be heard singing “Da pacem Domine”. “Cathedral in the Thrashing Rain” by American composer Stephen Hartke was issued in 2003 in the US and 2005 in Europe. A particular critical success was the recording of selected works by early 16th century master Nicolas Gombert issued in February 2006, which was selected for the quarterly shortlist by the jury of Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik.

CD-package includes 28-page booklet with an introduction by David Skinner in English and German and all sung texts.

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