TranseamusThe vocal quartet’s swansong leaves a ghostly echo in the brain

Label: ECM
Time: 14 tracks / 67 mins.

How great it is that music is still being made, “not on commercial criteria, but rather on artistic impulse.” This is how a grateful countertenor David James describes the way that ECM has worked with them. Working from the heart, rather than from sales-potential, label founder Manfred Eicher takes the attitude that if music moves him, then it should move others too.

On paper, there might not be a huge market for music from the Middle Ages, especially when much of it is by anonymous composers and some of it – as the first three tracks here – is about the martyred Thomas Beckett. Even the back of the CD box eschews a track listing in favour of a simple summary, “English carols and motets by John Plummer, William Cornysh, Walter Lambe, Sheryngham, a. o.” as if the titles are irrelevant.

Actually, they probably are. What strikes about this collection is the way that the tapestry of sound holds together, at least after the brisk initial piece “Tomas Cesus in Doveria.” This track doesn’t sound like an old work at all, but more like a pop version, with its round-like structure and overlapping lines. It certainly is wise to put it at the start, as, once it is out of the way, the measured, reflective beauty instantly begins.

The effect of the disc makes me think of a breeze-rippled spider web, sunlight catching its threads, with each thread a voice. The structure is quite simple (unaccompanied 2-, 3- and 4-part harmonies) with plenty of space around each voice, but the lines meet and interweave to create a beautiful, and quite mesmerising, pattern.

Recorded in their favourite ‘studio’ – the intimate chapel in the monastery of St. Gerold in Austria – warmth coats their calm, clear (and pretty faultless) vocal performances.

The Hilliard Ensemble has been a leading vocal quartet for much of its history, which has involved music from all sorts of eras, not least contemporary works by composers like Arvo Pärt and Terje Rypdal; and they are probably best known for their three genre-blending collaborations with saxophonist Jan Garbarek.

Being their swansong, this was the opportunity to capture on record some of their favourite as-yet-unrecorded pieces, which is probably why there are political and historical texts thrown incongruously among the sacred. But the final track is a fitting conclusion to 40 years of work. James writes in his liner notes of Sheryngham’s “Ah Gentle Jesu,” that “on paper, it is a simple dialogue between Christ on the cross and a penitent sinner; however, the intensity of the music is so overwhelming that, from our experience in concert, both listener and performer are left in stunned silence."

It may not be quite as stunning on record, but once the exquisite music has finished, a ghostly after-sound echoes through the brain for some while.

Derek Walker

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