Music Review: Hilliard Ensemble at the Kennedy Center

The Hilliard Ensemble offered a program of Palestrina and Lassus.
The Hilliard Ensemble offered a program of Palestrina and Lassus. (By Friedrun Reinhold)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 14, 2009

However much our ears have grown accustomed to it through years of early-music performance, there remains a basic incongruity to hearing Renaissance religious choral works as concert music. Offering these flowing but ascetic harmonies to a polite concert audience demonstrates just how much classical music has become for many people a form of secular religion: something important received in silence, with a certain degree of incomprehension.

The voices of the four-man Hilliard Ensemble, which offered a program of Palestrina and Lassus at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater on Thursday night, aren't very concertlike either. Individually, each has a distinctive early-music sound, unadorned by vibrato or roundness or lushness, like bare wood on a door stripped of paint and varnish. They sometimes wavered or wandered through long melismas as if seeking the central pitch. The knifelike voice of countertenor David James, set the tone, poised high above the gravelly, bass-colored baritone of Gordon Jones. Between them were two husky tenors, Rogers Covey-Crump and Steven Harrold, one a little bleaty, the other baritonal. The voices had the rough edges of human speech, and the occasional hoarseness of a throat that needed clearing.

But pure beauty resided in their interaction. The ensemble's art lies in balancing sound; when juxtaposed, their voices blossomed. Nearly every segment of the evening ended with a chord that was perfectly turned and weighted and suspended, almost glowing, over the audience's head: a beautiful illustration of the potential of a period, a thought brought to fruition as well as conclusion.

Founded in 1974, and subject to various shifts of personnel in the years since, the group has done a number of unusual and contemporary projects: performing in a Stephen Hartke symphony with the New York Philharmonic, or releasing a runaway success of an album called "Morimur" that illustrated allegedly coded messages to Bach's deceased wife in his music.

This program, however, was more modest in scale and ambition. A requiem mass by Lassus provided an ordered framework, adorned with Palestrina settings of various psalms and other sacred texts as more discursive asides. Generally, the Lassus was more lapidary and polished, the Palestrina more richly melismatic, though the latter's segments varied: The Miserere (Psalm 50) was a long chain of musical statements, verses and plainsong loosely bound together, and ending in medias res, simply and almost bleakly, like a life cut short. Far more intricate was the concluding "Libera me," capped with the simple coda "In paradisum," like balm after a beautiful but stony program.

The ensemble is named after a British Renaissance painter, and as an encore the singers offered a piece written for them by the composer Piers Hellawell, based on Hilliard's own writings about mixing pigments. Unfortunately the words of "Sapphire" were largely incomprehensible (the Latin was a lot clearer than the English on this evening). But the piece had a wonderful energy that stirred the blood, as if the evening's blanket of devotion had lifted to reveal something refreshingly profane, if only by virtue of its contemporaneity.

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