:: trio mediaeval

Hilliard Ensemble & Jan Garbarek: the final concert

Sunday, December 7th, 2014

King's chapel smallRob Cowan plays Hilliard tracks 10.30 – 11.00 on BBC Radio 3 every day this week

The audience were so quiet if we hadn’t been able to see (and even touch them) we wouldn’t have known they were there. After the last chord of Parce Mihi had drifted up into the chapel vaulting and disappeared the silence enveloped us all. Time seemed to stop. Then the audience erupted like a football crowd.




In the afternoon we did the longest sound check ever – nearly an hour. Mostly because the guys were reluctant to decide the actual programme. It was all a bit subdued. I was excited to see a copy of the programme booklet which reminded us of the start of it all twenty years ago. Tickets hadn’t been going well until the BBC played a short clip from the Morales, after which their switchboard was jammed with callers wanting to know what it was. The concert immediately sold out and there was such a scrum for CDs at Heffers Sound afterwards that the police were called. That’s when we knew…


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Not much talk in the dressing room in Gibbs Building before the start. It must have been so much harder for David, Rogers, Steven and Gordon than for me, and I was wondering how we’d be able to get through it. It was extraordinary to be back – although until Ely a couple of weeks ago I hadn’t done this programme for 15 years in many respects it was as though I’d never been away.

But then we’re off, and it’s business as usual, dispersing to all parts of the building as the first notes begin to occupy the space. I sat on the organ loft stairs for the pieces I wasn’t involved in, so heard a lot of the concert from the shadows just behind the guys. There were many great moments – and some staggering sax playing of course, with Jan playing the building like a giant amplifier. We all had moments when we nearly lost it – when that part of the brain that deals with real emotion got the better of our professional cool. Finally the last piece in the programme arrived – the Brumel Agnus Dei. I stood up in the shadows waiting to join the guys to process through the choir for the last time. Hearing them singing their hearts out I found myself smiling rather than crying, and filled with a huge sense of relief and of a job well done. I thought back to twenty years before, looking through all the Brumel masses, then trying that particular Agnus on the piano, hearing Jan in my head floating over that amazing descending sequence (so modern!), and there it was, sailing on into the dark twenty years later having touched millions of people across the world along the way. Then it was just Remember me my Dear and Parce mihi to survive, and the final walk down the antechapel and out into the moonlight. We’d done it. The last time I walked down the packed antechapel was a wet Christmas Eve in 1960 on my way to the West door to sing the treble solo in Once in Royal David’s City.


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Amores Pasados


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There will never be another project like the Hilliards’ partnership with Jan Garbarek but the creative life goes on, and by a serendipitous coincidence the end of one ECM project coincides with the genesis of another. Last week at Rainbow Studios in Oslo Anna Maria Friman, Ariel Abramovich, Jacob Heringman and I recorded Amores Pasados, our album of lute songs by Campion, Sting, Tony Banks and John Paul Jones. It was our attempt to confound the difference between art song and pop song, and was another of those gloriously unforgettable ECM experiences. We’d arranged and rehearsed the pieces so we knew it was going to be something special, but as happened with the Hilliards and the Dowland Project, Manfred Eicher sculpted the music into something that none of us could possibly have imagined. We all feel that something extraordinary happened over those three days (two to record and one to mix). The chemistry between the four of us as people and musicians, the rich and rare texture of two lutes and two voices, the direct emotional appeal of music unconstrained by classical convention: mix together with one of the world’s most creative producers at the height of his powers and you have Amores Pasados. We’re hoping for a spring release while we’re still heady with the Oslo momentum, and I’ll put a dedicated page on this site with new photos by CF Wesenberg and details of upcoming gigs.

Trio Mediaeval – Aquilonis


The mixing day for Amores Pasados coincided with Trio Mediaeval’s launch event for Aquilonis, which we recorded in St Gerold earlier this year (a very quick turn around!). If there’s a successor to the Hilliard Ensemble perhaps the Trio are it. They first appeared at a Hilliard Summer School in Cambridge 16 years ago, and went on to make 5 (and counting) stunning albums for ECM, four of which I’ve had a hand in producing. Like the Hilliard Ensemble, they don’t claim to be a dedicated early music group (despite the name…) but have established a unique persona that transcends conventional categories, a synthesis developed from their backgrounds in early music, folk music and the Scandinavian music education system. Their Oslo concert was exquisite – beautiful singing (and with a surprise appearance of the next generation of wonderful young girl singers). Like the Hilliards at their best, they can transform the simplest chord into something magical.


Three Medieval Tenors – Conductus


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So what is Rogers Covey-Crump going to be doing post-Hilliard Ensemble? Joining Christopher O’Gorman and me for concerts of the colourful 12th century Conductus repertoire. Our third CD will be released by Hyperion in the spring and at the moment we have concerts and workshops booked in the UK, Germany, Slovenia and Spain. This will be the culmination of several years’ research led by Mark Everist at the University of Southampton.  In 2016 we hope to tackle later medieval music as far as Machaut, and maybe commission some new pieces for the three of us.


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The Hilliard Legacy


I hope the Hilliards will find a home for the unique collection of scores that they’ve built up over the years, and perhaps one of the members will create some sort of archive. The records of course speak for themselves, and there will presumably be an album or two still come as a result of their live recordings during this final year. In January, when we’ve got over the trauma of December 20th at the Wigmore, I might put up a couple of chapters from my aborted travel diaries of the nineties featuring our adventures in Russia (the Hermitage concert) and Latvia (mostly plumbing…). At the moment they only exist as paper drafts, so they’ll take a bit of typing.

None of the other ensembles that I’ve mentioned above would exist if I hadn’t joined (and then left) the Hilliard Ensemble. The common factor in all of them is ECM, which took the risk with the Dowland Project, Trio Mediaeval, and now the Amores Pasados quartet. And two of the Three Medieval Tenors were the Hilliard tenor section for 17 years, so life goes on… What a great privilege it is to be associated with such musicians and such a record label.

trio mediaeval at St Gerold

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

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Back in January I decided to take six months more or less off to focus on grandfathering and house moving stuff. There were some things I just had to do though (the final Conductus album and a last Hilliard trip among them), and last weekend I sat in on Trio Mediaeval’s latest ECM recording at St Gerold.

I’ve known the Trio almost since they started, setting a Hilliard summer school alight just a year or so after they’d first got together. Several summer schools later they surprised me by asking me to produce their first album – which I agreed to do as long as they also hired Peter Laenger as Tonmeister. At the time they had no record label in mind, but Manfred Eicher got to hear a first edit and the rest is history. We did two more albums together, and each one was pure joy. I’d never produced anything before (hence the crucial role of one the business’s great Tonmeisters), and my technique turned out to be not unlike my coaching – a sort of homeopathic approach, depending not so much on input from me as encouraging a certain sort of creative self belief in everyone else.


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This was the Trio’s first album with Berit Opheim. In Torunn Østrem Ossum they had a unique and much-loved bottom line, but fans of the group needn’t worry about her successor: Berit is a fantastic singer and her background as both a ‘classical’ singer and a distinguished folk musician means she’s a perfect fit in the magical Trio soundworld. The recording revealed a staggering range of tone colours from all three singers (they can all switch instantly from ‘early music pure’ to rich Nordic dialect, and from a flute-like sopranino to a bell-like tenor). I won’t reveal what’s on it (the languages range from Icelandic, southwards to Italy via a small island off the European mainland) but I can tell you it’ll be out in time for Christmas (unusually quick for ECM…).


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My last experience at St Gerold was definitely one to forget, so it was great to be able to go back and erase the memory properly. Previous visits included many Hilliard recordings (Officium and Mnemosyne were both recorded there) and three of the four Dowland Project albums. We were on our way to record Care-Charming Sleep when I had a message from my son Ned telling me to get to a TV set. Changing planes in Amsterdam I caught a fleeting glimpse of the screens showing the planes hitting the twin towers. We arrived at the monastery to find a small black and white tv that only worked sporadically, so we spent the next few days completely ignorant of the fact that the world had changed.


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It’s not quite the same as it was in Pater Nathaniel’s day – it’s a bit more business and a bit less Benedictine – but the view and the acoustic haven’t changed, nor has the arrival of copious amounts of wholesome mountain food at far too frequent intervals. And you still get woken up at 5.00 by the dawn chorus across the valley before it gives way to the chirping of house sparrows in the eves. As for the weather – it was 32 degrees and yet so cold in the church that we had to put the heating on.

The Trio went on to another gig in Switzerland, meeting up with trumpeter Arve Henriksen for a completely different programme with electronics and video. The group is unique – and surely one of the most versatile vocal ensembles in the world. Who would have thought at that first summer school that we were dealing with future Grammy-nominated artists? Well…I did…and a lovelier bunch of people you couldn’t hope to meet.