Review: Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Garbarek

First published in The Herald on 17 March, 2014

Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow

With its lofty vaults and vast central hall, Kelvingrove Museum doesn’t make the ideal venue for every vocal group: the sound tends to get mushy, diluted or plain lost. But the Hilliard Ensemble isn’t every vocal group. For a group that cultivates aesthetic austerity they really thrive on extravagant echo. Their performances with Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek welcome resonant space like a collaborative partner. They’re never static, either: this concert began with Garbarek alone on stage and the four voices wafting in from all corners of the hall, setting up the mysticism that has become a key component of the Hilliard-Garbarek formula.

Their collaboration goes back to 1994’s wildly successful ECM album Officium. Much of their Kelvingrove programme came from Officium’s second follow-up, Officium Novum (2010), which is anchored in the music of Armenia and the Orthodox church. Almost all of it is slow: Garbarek needs space to improvise in the gaps between phrases and weave a fifth voice in amongst the counterpoint. His harmonic play is often subversive, turning a chord on its head to make something entirely new. The tone of his saxophone can be harsh and at times he overpowered the delicate voices – their a cappella delivery of Arvo Pärt’s haunting Most Holy Mother of God came as a relief. But at best, when Garbarek used his mellow low register to really meld with the voices, the effect was mesmerising. The Hilliards retire this year: after a standing ovation they gave an encore, the Scottish lament Remember Me My Dear. A poignant close to one of the iconic musical experiences of past decades.