Saturday evening’s concert saw the coming together of two world-class ensembles from opposite ends of the world: Australia’s national orchestra, the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and the world-renowned British vocal group the Hilliard Ensemble. They presented a program which both delighted and challenged players and audience alike, containing music ranging from the medieval period to the 21st century.

Hilliard Ensemble, © Friedrun Reinhold
Hilliard Ensemble,
© Friedrun Reinhold

The concert opened with Elgar’s Serenade for Strings in E minor, a piece which showcased the wonderfully rich sound of the strings of the ACO. As usual, the entire concert was performed without conductor. Despite this, the players performed with perfect ensemble; all nuances of tempo were timed to perfection and there was not a note out of place. The concert hall was bathed in a wonderfully warm, lush sound as the players allowed themselves to be seduced by Elgar’s exquisite music.

From a large-scale string sound to an unaccompanied motet: the four members of the Hilliard Ensemble made their first appearance of the night with a performance of the beautifully intimate Ah, Gentle Jesu by the little-known composer Sheryngham. This piece was written in about 1500 and is a dialogue between two pairs of singers representing a penitent sinner and the crucified Christ. This charming piece was performed in an almost conversational manner by the Hilliard Ensemble, bringing the work to life. Sadly, there are only two known works by Sheryngham. Ah, Gentle Jesu is a gem and well worth discovering.

This was followed by perhaps the most remarkable work in the program, Obikhod by the Russian composer, Alexander Raskatov, composed some five hundred years later than the Sheryngham. The Hilliard Ensemble has become well known for forging relationships and commissioning new works from contemporary composers. Obikhod is an example of such a work, commissioned by the Hilliard Ensemble and the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra and first performed in November 2003. Obikhod is an immensely complicated work, and it was performed as if the musicians of the ACO and Hilliard Ensemble had been working together for years, such was the level of ensemble and precision in their performance. The work is a setting of texts from the Russian Orthodox Requiem Mass. Raskatov’s sound-world is fascinating. Even if his music is perhaps challenging, the range of effects he manages to achieve from four singers and a string ensemble is extraordinary, from celestial sounds created by violins playing over the bridge to large, jarring sounds from the full orchestra.

This piece was followed directly by a beautiful, short, accompanied choral piece by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, another contemporary composer with whom the Hilliard Ensemble has strong ties. The piece, Most Holy Mother of God is a wonderfully hypnotic composition with slow-moving harmonies, which brought the first half of the concert to a serene close.

The majority of the second half was based on the plainsong hymn for Pentecost, Veni, Creator Spiritus. The Gregorian chant verses of the hymn were interspersed with an unaccompanied French Medieval setting and a two-movement work written for strings by Sydney composer Ross Edwards. Edwards takes as his inspiration music from the age of Palestrina mixed with a touch of Japanese pentatonicism. This made for a fascinating composition. The two movements were completely contrasting, the first being a tranquil meditation on the hymn, and the second a rhythmic dance. The Australian Chamber Orchestra seemed entirely at home with this music, allowing the beautiful waves of the first movement to wash over the audience, while the second movement was performed with absolute rhythmic precision.

The ACO concluded the concert with a performance of the rarely-heard Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky by Arensky. Arensky counted Tchaikovsky as one of his friends and was a teacher to the likes of Rachmaninov and Scriabin, although his music has never made it into the mainstream. Nevertheless, this piece contains many of the Romantic melodic and harmonic hallmarks of these great composers, and surely deserves to be better known. Like the Elgar which opened the evening, this work allowed us once more to wallow in the heavenly sound of the ACO, bringing to a close a thoroughly engaging evening.