As the saying goes, ars longa, vita brevis. However, music from the Ars nova--that period of the 14th century noted for its highly contrapuntal vocal textures--has had a very short life, in terms of modern performance. The Hilliard Ensemble, an English vocal quartet comprising two tenors, counter-tenor and baritone, specializes in this overlooked genre of Medieval chamber music, but is equally adept at a Renaissance chanson, or a bawdy 18th-century catch.
Last evening at the Library of Congress, the vocalists displayed their versatility in a me'lange of English, French and Italian secular and sacred pieces. In the first half of the concert, the quartet delved into the musical age of Chaucer, with a stirring ballade by Machaut, "Dame qui toute ma joie," highlighted by the impassioned singing of tenor Paul Elliott. The allegorical "Roman de Fauvel," based on a long satirical poem in which the fauvel is an ass embodying the seven deadly sins, found the Hilliard in fine voice; clean enunciation and a "bray-sen" attack made the humor that much more enjoyable.
The humor was virtually nonstop after intermission in the presentation of "ditties from the drawing room." Josquin des Prez's "El Grillo" included a wry impersonation of a cricket, while Orlando di Lasso's "Matona mia cara" was a ribald takeoff on a German soldier wooing his beloved in fractured Italian. John Stafford Smith's "To Anacreon in Heav'n," replete with exaggerated trills in the best boffo profundo style, seemed, at least in spirit, to be the forerunner of the rugby song