Hilliard Ensemble

Philip Hammond heads south for an exhilarating evening of musicial modernity

I’m on the road south. I recall from my youth a smug little Northern Irish quip that you could always tell when you were in Northern Ireland because of the roads. You still can but for the opposite reason nowadays. For safety concerns, I have to moderate my speed on the way down. The short journey seems to take ages.

I concentrate hard on the 'continuous improvement' which characterises this ironically entitled A1 link road between Dublin and Belfast and muse on its symbolic significance relative to our political context. The obstacles seem to multiply on this highway – paradoxically it gets worse as it gets better. I start thinking of our moribund politics and of our small-minded politicians who create new sets of obstacles in our course of political recovery ... but, no, I don’t want to go down that road.

I’m heading for Dundalk because, unlikely as it may seem, that town and its close neighbour Drogheda, have hosted over the past couple of years a most exhilarating series of contemporary classical music concerts. Louth Contemporary Music Society is the extraordinary vision of an enterprising enthusiast called Eamonn Quinn and his Northern-born wife, Gemma Murray.

Together they have brought from around the world to this ancient and historic corner of our island towering figures of musical modernity – Terry Rily, Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt, the Kronos Quartet, Patricia Rozario in the music of Sir John Tavener, Valentin Silvestrov, Alexander Knaifel, Anonymous 4. A truly remarkable achievement.

It’s October 1 and tonight the Hilliard Ensemble are in town with their 'Arkhangelos' programme. It will be a mixture of traditional sacred songs and chants in arrangement alongside more contemporary settings of sacred texts, mirroring the different fundaments of Christianity from Greek and Russian Orthodoxy to Roman Catholicism. I have no interest in the religions but the music they inspire can be spiritually enlightening.

The Hilliards immediately justify their formidable international reputation as one of the world’s finest vocal groups. In James MacMillan’s '...here in hiding...' the four men seem to pluck their opening notes from some hidden point in the lofty vaulted ceiling of St Patrick’s Cathedral. How did they do that?

MacMillan’s music is almost conversational in its structure, its harmonies an accidental by-product of the thoroughly modern counterpoint. I find it difficult to find a firm base for the harmonies as they weave themselves around pillars of atonality and suddenly transmute into traditional gestures of late twentieth century homophony.

The tonal range of this male vocal grouping is amazing – the sound is so flexible, so fluid. MacMillan’s chant-like recitative passages intermingle with his chordal progressions, fused in that synthetic language which the composer has developed within the context of his strong Catholic faith. Here he also fuses the Latin of a poem by St Thomas Aquinas with the English translation by Gerard Manley Hopkins .

The resonant stone clad acoustic of St Patrick’s lends an ethereal ambiance to the vocal sound which is perfect for this type of religiously based music. But I find that somehow I’ve missed the second piece, unable at first to distinguish the transition from one work to another, so homogeneous is the programming. And of course, the group expressly discourages applause until the end of the first half.

I tune in more carefully and recognise the sixteenth century musical vernacular of Sheryngham, a composer whom I have never come across before. His 'Ah, Gentle Jesu!' contrasts duet and quartet, upper and lower voices in a setting which is notably modern sounding to ears accustomed to the outwardly simple music of the latter day holy minimalists.

The variability of the metre allows this music to float effortlessly, almost unbound by the strictures of four square bar-lined convention. The ensemble plays with the cathedral’s acoustic introducing dynamic subtleties, leaving notes and phrases hanging in the air or drifting off into the farthest corners of the building.

Jonathan Wild’s harmonies rudely draw me back to the more angular, musical dialect of the modern world. This programme is such an intriguing juxtaposition of the old and the new – seamlessly moving through the centuries. In his two pieces from The Cloud of Unknowing, Wild’s attractively close but challenging vocal writings are perfectly tuned by the Hilliard and perfectly shaped.

Sometimes the musical complexity can obscure the literary contexts of the settings but then a single line shines through like a ray of light through cloud cover and I get a glimpse of the allusions in the texts.

The heady Orthodox pedals underpinning the melodic melismas of the ensuing four Armenian Sharakans shift me to another plane of awareness. In these decorative arrangements by the scholarly monk Komitas, made about a century ago, I can almost smell the heavy incense. They evoke in my mind exotic pictures of smoke-filled, dark interiors of distant Eastern churches. Eventually , inevitably, the melodic flurries settle into a consonant unison or open interval, emphasising the palpable contrast between the static and the ecstatic.

I look around the ornate Victorian mosaics on the sanctuary wall of this mid-nineteenth century Gothic revival building. I wonder if many of the other people imagine themselves equally transported to another place through this music which seems to reflect the light reflected on the gold encrusted mosaics reflecting the swirls and patterns of the religious iconography, garishly rich in colour and design.
I can’t believe the first half is over already .

'Arkhangelos', by English composer Ivan Moody, picks up the atmospheric influence of Greek Orthodoxy for the second half of this fascinating concert. His parallel harmonies describe and balance the dissonant insertions which are all the more startling against the plain painted backdrop of the basically tonal palette of this music.

An anonymous Marian hymn from post-mediaeval Italy then acts as an aural sorbet before the Hilliards perform Arvo Pärt’s perfectly structured 'Most Holy Mother of God'. Someone hasn’t turned off the Cathedral’s timepiece and the bells in the campanile chime out nine o’clock – it seems to come from a different world as Pärt’s static harmonies and religiously repetitive texts are spiced with their own chromatic interruptions inside the piece itself.

I find myself looking forward to the second set of Sharakans. The peculiarly eastern flavour of their music is heightened by long sinuous solo lines reminiscent of the calls to prayer in Muslim countries. Yet these pieces are strangely resonant with the ornate Catholic setting of St Patrick’s.

Within minutes, the Hilliards have changed tack again with the five hymns and prayers set in Alexander Raskatov’s 'Praise'. Like much of the music in their programme, this set was written especially for the ensemble and it is tailor-made to demonstrate their technical brilliance.

The harmonies are tight and taut, engendering again in my head a mystical imagery of the Cherubim, the glorious company of the Angels. These close intervals surely represent the tightly woven curls and braids painted on icons of supernatural beings who seem to be so much part of the orthodox church mythology.

The dynamic colourations add sharp lines to the overlapping vocal shapes, multidimensionalising the flat, wall-like surfaces of the aural pictures. Microtonal variations in the lines of the voices define the elements of drama, while the symbiotic echo of the cathedral provides an acoustical canvas – I think ultimately this entire concert is a piece of theatre for the imagination.

The tessitura of these four voices is vast in its range, from the depths of basso profundo to the heights of countertenor. I have to keep reminding myself that this is just four singers because the diversity of the sounds and technique, from singing right through to Sprechstimme, would lead me to think there was a complete chorus at times. Yet despite this wide spectrum of colour and the breadth of the repertoire , there is a complete unity of effect in this programme from the Hilliards.

The concert ends and I mill around in the aftermath crowd. I speak to composers Elaine Agnew and Deirdre McKay; I chat to Belfast City organist Colm Carey; I’m introduced to Arvo Pärt's daughter! Am I turning into Ian Hill’s doppelganger?

I scarcely notice that I’m already on the journey north again until I reach Newry.

The road is closed.