The release of their recording of Guillaume de Machaut marks the 30th anniversary of the Hilliard Ensemble. The group was founded early in 1974 and gave its first concert at All Souls’ Church in London with a line-up that already included the distinctive countertenor of David James, which continues to define its signature sound. Although the Hilliard personnel expands with guest musicians to meet the needs of specific projects (e.g. the addition of second countertenor David Gould here, or soprano Monika Mauch on the acclaimed “Morimur” and “Ricercar” discs), the core unit of James/Covey-Crump/Jones has been in place since the beginning of the 1990s, and musical associations between the singers, in other contexts, go back much further. Tenor Steven Harrold, the most recent inductee, has been a member of the group since 1998.
Music of Guillaume de Machaut (ca. 1300-1377) has been in the Hilliard’s repertoire for decades, and in the 1980s the group recorded his Messe de Notre Dame for Hyperion, in a version deemed definitive by many critics. The current recording of the Machaut Motets is based upon a new edition prepared by long-time Hilliard Ensemble associate and musicologist Nicky Losseff. In her detailed liner note she describes the Motets as “replete with hidden meanings, multiple commentaries and complex musical procedures…Yet it is Machaut’s ability to pierce the heart, not his cleverness, that can overwhelm the listener on an emotional level.”
Machaut is revered by contemporary musicians for his experimental daring (Hilliard baritone Gordon Jones speaks of the “almost unbelievable virtuosity” of the Motets), for his melismatic melody and the rhythmic elasticity of his pieces. The musical scope of his work marked a great compositional leap forward, and it has become commonplace to consider him an ‘avant-garde’ composer of his time… He was, clearly, an independent thinker, and his “freely fantasized art” was strictly tied to neither church nor court, though he wrote for both. A composer of genius, he stands as one of the first great figures of Western music.
As a poet, too, Machaut achieved great renown. It is only recently however that scholars have begun to understand the spiritual allegory implicit in Machaut’s love poetry. This cycle of motets “carries potent religious implications, outlining allegorically nothing less than the steps of a religious journey.” Machaut’s texts have an affinity with the “mystic literature of Richard Rolle, Henry Suso and Baldwin of Ford – writers for whom earthly concepts of love were juxtaposed with the spiritual to create language of great emotional force. Thus, Machaut’s fervent intellectual conception of courtly love is allied to the mystics’ equally passionate yet highly structured portrayals of endless longing for Christ.”
Whether one chooses to interpret the texts from a sacred or secular perspective there can be no denying that the marriage of words and music in Machaut is always extraordinarily graceful.
The Machaut Motets is the 20th album project with the Hilliard Ensemble on ECM New Series. Most recently heard on Tigran Mansurian’s “Monodia”, the group’s music has addressed an extraordinary range of styles and periods over the course of almost two decades with ECM.
One of the most outstanding vocal chamber groups in the world today, the Hilliard Ensemble’s reputation in the fields of both early and new music is unsurpassed; no other vocal group has addressed the “old” and the “new” so persuasively for so long. The group has been associated with ECM since 1987, Arvo Pärt's "Arbos" signalling also the beginning of a long association with the Estonian composer (including the discs “Passio”, “Miserere” and “Litany”).
Other Hilliard recordings for the New Series include music of Victoria and Palestrina ("In Paradisum"), Gesualdo ("Tenebrae"), Lassus, Walter Frye, Thomas Tallis ("The Lamentations of Jeremiah"), "Codex Specialnik" (Josquin Desprez, Petrus de Grudencz, Johannes Touront, John Plummer etc.), "A Hilliard Songbook“ (Barry Guy, Morton Feldman, Ivan Moody, James MacMillan, Veljo Tormis, Arvo Pärt, Joanne Metcalf etc.). The Ensemble’s 1993 collaboration with improvising saxophonist Jan Garbarek, "Officium", proved to be enormously successful; the Garbarek/Hilliard combination issued a second record, "Mnemosyne" in 1999, and continues to tour widely.
In 2001, the Hilliard Ensemble’s collaboration with Christoph Poppen on “Morimur”, based on the Bach research of Prof. Helga Thoene, intrigued many thousands of listeners around the world. The Poppen/Hilliard association continued with “Ricercar”, released 2003, exploring musical and spiritual affinities between Bach and Webern.