Sacred or secular, early or modern music are alike meat and drink to the Hilliard Ensemble, whose flexibility and musicianship are second to none.
The quartet’s appearance in York on Wednesday, postponed by illness from 2009, covered all those areas with equal finesse.
It is greatly to the credit of Roger Marsh that he was able to create for the Hilliards a Dante-inspired piece that blends Renaissance techniques with a modern idiom. Il Cor Tristo sets three groups of extracts from Cantos 32 and 33 of Dante’s Inferno (Hell).
Between the sections were interwoven 16th-century madrigals, three each by Pisano and Arcadelt, which offered a certain light relief from Dante’s angst-laden travels. Marsh’s score called for a spectrum of techniques ranging from straight song to ordinary speech, with several varieties of speech-song along the way. They added depth to his keen sense of theatre.
The Hilliards maintained an almost conversational flow in their delivery, while negotiating some testing close harmony. But there moments of forceful declamation too. Most affecting of all was the tale of the traitor Ugolino, sealed in a tower to die with his family. The setting was vivid, the singing heartfelt.
After Perotinus’s staggeringly modern (though 12th century) Viderunt, the sacred second half of the evening smoothly traversed orthodox Slavonic chant, Rossi’s appealing By the Waters of Babylon, and Arvo Pärt’s new plainsong, heard in And One of the Pharisees. The Hilliards’ facility knows no bounds.