Not a dry eye in the house as a cappella legends say farewell after 40 years.

Great Hall, Sydney Universtity

January 15, 2014

It’s been a good few months for catching vocal legends in Sydney. The Tallis Scholars were here celebrating 40 years back in November and now the Hilliard Ensemble have reached the same milestone. But whereas Peter Phillips has been able to refresh his vocal forces along the way, the Hilliards have been at it, relatively unchanged, for many, many years – indeed, countertenor David James has been in the group for the full 40!

If, like me, you have been listening to their extraordinary catalogue of iconic albums on EMI, Hyperion, Coro, Harmonia Mundi and ECM since the mid-1980s (from Pérotin to Pärt with countless composers old and new along the way), the announcement that this will be a farewell tour feels awfully like the end of an era. The opportunity to catch them live one last time, then, is not to be missed.

The setting of Sydney University’s Great Hall with its generous acoustic and faux-Gothic gloom was nigh on ideal for a program that ranged from the medieval through to the ‘ink still wet on the page’ latest commission from Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa. Along the way we were treated to Italian madrigals, Armenian folk-songs and some of the delights of the Eton Choirbook.

Now mostly in their sixties, the fresh faced young things of the early days are now sober, greying and bespectacled but the years have been relatively kind to the Hilliard’s sound. The vocal top end is not quite as effortless as was once the case, but the blend remains exemplary and the sense of familiar musical communion is, at this stage in their careers, total. Their approach to the Italian Renaissance repertoire may be a little genteel compared to the more open-throated approach of some continental groups but their grace and style is unquestionable and when they sing music by the likes of Pärt and Tormis it is with the authority of a respected ensemble, recognised, singled out and written for by such eminent contemporary composers. And did I mention perfect pitch? Not a tuning fork in sight all evening!

Highlights for me would have to include their early English repertoire – William Cornysh and good old anon – sung with warm tone and excellent attention to text. Also the extraordinary Viderunt omnes with it’s extruded text, dancing rhythms, bright, high timbre and joyous hocketing, which was composed by Pérotin for Notre Dame sometime back in the 13th century and has been in the group's repertoire since at least 1986 when they recorded a disc of his fascinating music for ECM.

The new work by Hosokawa was intriguing with its glissandi-laden cattle herding song (a little reminiscent of the mad-woman’s music from Britten’s Curlew River) requiring the singers to make sounds suspiciously like lowing cows and ending with a lilting, ruminative lullaby.

But perhaps the most compelling moment came with Arvo Pärt’s And one of the Pharisees… The Estonain composers’ music is particularly associated with the Hilliards who championed him back before he became the household name that he is today. The years fell away for this simple but poignant setting of a snippet of St Luke’s gospel. Every pungent harmony and dissonance was perfectly in place, the solo lines clear and lovingly communicated with an enormous sense of naturalness. Legendary indeed.

The Hilliard Ensemble is at the Sydney Festival until January 18. Catch them while you can before they are going, going…