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The Hilliard Ensemble’s interpretation of motets by Guillaume de Machaut released on ECM New Series in 2004 was hailed by the international press as an outstanding artistic achievement: “This is a landmark recording and a courageous venture“, wrote David Fallows in Gramophone. The disc won several awards and in 2005 it was nominated for a Grammy. By highlighting Nicolas Gombert the ensemble – which for this repertoire is augmented by Andreas Hirtreiter and Robert Macdonald – continues its explorations of medieval and renaissance polyphony which have lead to unanimously acclaimed ECM-recordings of major works by Perotin, Tallis, Orlando di Lasso, Gesualdo and a selection of pieces by Palestrina and Victoria.

Biographical details on Nicolas Gombert are scant. Born shortly before 1500, probably in southern Flanders, there is some evidence that he was a pupil of Josquin Desprez. Starting in 1526, as a member of the chapel choir of Charles V of Spain, he travelled the Empire extensively. Scholars believe he served as an unofficial court composer since his works were printed by major publishing houses around Europe and were widely known. However the only record of his death is to be found in the 1567 treatise on the “Paesi bassi” by the Italian diplomat Ludovico Guicciardini who argued that Gombert was one of “the true masters of music, the ones that have restored it and given it back its perfection.” The high esteem in which Gombert was held during his lifetime is evident from the number of contemporary masses based on material from his works. Orlando di Lasso was influenced by him, and the young Claudio Monteverdi was one of his ardent admirers. As Uwe Schweikert reasons in his liner notes, the elaboration and density of Gombert’s contrapuntal writing “bears all the traits of a music, which in 1562/63 motivated Catholic radical reformers to their infamous attack on polyphonic music in liturgy altogether at the Trent council.” In fact the comprehensibility of the sacred texts is almost obliterated by the sophisticated imitative writing. As a result, the five- and six-part textures, in their uninterrupted flow, tend to attain the status of autonomous musical works of art.

The CD’s programme is opened by the six-part motet Media Vita, one of Gombert’s undisputed masterpieces. The composer’s predilection for dark colours is demonstrated by the setting for five male voices and only one “superius” part. Equally characteristic is his restraint in the use of outward expressivity like melodic word painting, ornamentation or clear caesura that could disturb the inward meditative flow. The motet Media Vita provides the musical basis for the Missa Media Vita. Extensive references are clearly audible particularly in the first bars of the respective movements, where the opening of the motet is quoted. However, in the progress of the piece the material is used in a much freer way. Another six-part masterwork closes the carefully constructed programme: the motet Musae Jovis, a musical homage to Josquin Desprez.

For more than 30 years the Hilliard Ensemble has been known as one of the most outstanding vocal groups whose sound “can be recognized within a single bar”, as Matthew Power wrote in Gramophone in 2004. The present recording is their 22nd on ECM New Series. The collaboration between the English a cappella quartet and the Munich based label began in 1986 with their contribution to Arvo Pärt’s “Arbos” and subsequently lead 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 particular 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 in 2005 in Europe.

Further recordings with the Hilliard Ensemble are in preparation.

CD package includes 24-page two language booklet with liner notes by Jonathan Wainwright and Uwe Schweikert.

International release concert:

February 17, 2006: Munich, Allerheiligenhofkirche der Residenz

Upcoming US-concerts:

Saturday, January 21: Los Angeles, CA / Getty Museum
Sunday, January 22: Portland, OR (concert)
Monday, January 23: Portland; OR (masterclass)
Wednesday, January 25: Cincinnati, OH
Friday, January 27: Lexington, KY
Saturday, January 28: Richmond, VA
Sunday, January 29: NYC / Corpus Christi Church