It has been nearly twenty years since the Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Garbarek released their first recording, Officium, in which the austere harmonies of medieval sacred music sung by the male voice quartet were augmented by Garbarek’s beautiful, freewheeling saxophone melodies. This collaboration is now on its third album, Officium Novum, and it was clear to everyone in Durham Cathedral this evening that it is a partnership that is growing richer and more imaginative with each new project.

David James, Rogers Covey-Crump, Jan Garbarek, Steven Harrold, Gordon Jones © Paolo Soriani / ECM Records
David James, Rogers Covey-Crump, Jan Garbarek, Steven Harrold, Gordon Jones
© Paolo Soriani / ECM Records

Officium Novum draws on some of the most ancient recorded Christian rites, with a focus on Armenia, and was presented in a seamless and intense performance. The concert opened with Garbarek alone on the stage, playing simple long notes, with little modal flutters, then the singers, off-stage joined in, building up on a drone so subtly from the baritone and blending so well that to begin with, I thought that they were in fact some clever harmonics from the saxophone.

The two longest sections of the concert consisted of Russian orthodox music and pieces by the Armenian composer Komitas. These were multilayered affairs, with the saxophone improvisations weaving around compositions that were themselves based on liturgical music. The Russian section took a clear, hypnotic chanting of the Lord’s Prayer (Otche nash), from the Old Believer tradition and a hymn to the Virgin, Dostoino est, punctuated with a simple litany by Kedrov, whose words “Lord have mercy” returned time and again, just as they would in an orthodox service. The Lord’s Prayer was a lovely sinuous solo chant by baritone Gordon Jones, contrasting with the more rhythmic, speech-like Dostoino est. The Armenian hymn Surb Surb (Holy Holy) set by Komitas showed off the wide vocal range of the Hilliard Ensemble, the rising and falling of the melody fitting perfectly with Garbarek’s characteristic style.

Garbarek’s signature sound was most marked in two pieces of his own composition Allting finns and We are the stars in which the voices took on an improvisational feel, and as the performers slowly dispersed and circled around the cathedral, the four voices and the saxophone blended pefectly together into one organic whole, sweeping the audience up in an intense whirl of sound.

At the centre of the performance was a piece by Arvo Pärt, Most Holy Mother of God, during which Garbarek took a break, leaving the bleak, sparse beauty of Pärt’s writing to speak for itself. The Hilliard Ensemble have a long relationship with Arvo Pärt’s music, and have given several memorable performances of his work in Durham cathedral: this beautiful little piece no doubt brought back memories for many of the audience. The unearthly, clear voices of the Hilliard Ensemble are wonderfully suited to Pärt’s music, particularly David James’s counter-tenor, and the solo passages of this piece showed his talents to the full, sounding like ghostly cries from another world.

After the heavenly sounds of so much liturgical music, Alleluia. Nativitas, a carol by the medieval French composer Pérotin was a delightful contrast. The way had been prepared with the last of the Komitas pieces, Hays hark nviranats ukhti which itself had a lighter folky feel to it, before exploding into the infectious syncopations of the Pérotin. At this point Jan Garbarek started to sound as if he was playing traditional jazz, running up and down in bluesy scales; ancient and modern working together brilliantly.

There were times during the concert when the voices were, somewhat overpowered by the saxophone, but this has been an ongoing debate since the release of Officium, and they could perhaps have been a little stronger at times, particularly in the parts without the saxophone. Jan Garbarek made the most of Durham Cathedral’s space, moving around, pointing in different directions, turning the cathedral itself into another instrument as he swooped and soared across the vocal lines.

The singers left the stage to a solemn Byzantine chant, enlivened by a final playful caper from Garbarek, the music not stopping until after the performers had got out of earshot. After much deserved rapturous applause they returned to give an encore, a beautifully simple Scottish tune, Remember me my dear. This concert will be remembered, no doubt about that.

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