CD review: Jan Garbarek/Hilliard Ensemble

Officium Novum
ECM 476 3855

I remember clearly how fresh, effective and affecting was Officium, the first disc from jazz saxophonist Jan Garbarek and the classical vocal quartet the Hilliard Ensemble, back in 1993. I remember, too, that my father-in-law liked it.

Now that latter fact did chime a warning bell for me. While he has impeccable taste in classical and choral music, my father in law is one of those listeners who is really only drawn to jazz in cross-over, fusion form. So, for example, he had some Jacques Loussier Play Bach albums, and some Swingle Singers. Nothing wrong with them. He also owned, I seem to remember – and this I find it hard to forgive him for – a disc or even two by Sky, that abomination of classical/rock crossover led by guitarist John Williams.

I didn’t go off Officium after a while, but it wasn’t because my father-in-law liked it – that would be terribly trite. No, it was that music somehow became its own cliche. It somehow ceased to be just itself, a recording of highly atmospheric and emotionally moving music, and became instead an over-used symbol of spirituality-lite, a kind of New Age church music for those who preferred their church all lean, chic and Nordic.

And the second Garbarek/Hillliards release, Mnemosyne, was a rather indigestible double disc, which didn’t help to reconcile our falling out.

But Officium Novum has brought these five musicians and this listener back into accord.

It’s difficult to figure out exactly how it’s happened. The style and material of this disc are not radically different from its predecessors. And yet, they don’t need to be; I think there has been a subtle change, both in material chosen and in performance, and that was all that was needed.

They have looked East this time – not as far as the Orient, but just far enough: to Armenia, and the works of Komitas Vardapet, priest, composer and, according to popular biographer, a martyr of the Armenian genocide of 1915, in that the experience of witnessing it led him to die in a Parisian mental institution 20 years later.

In addition to works by Komitas, there is some Byzantine chant, some Arvo Part, some Perotin and other works. All is recorded, as before, in the beautiful acoustic of the St Gerold monastery in Austria.

Not only are the pieces chosen, and the way they are sung, a bit more edgy, but Garbarek’s style and sound has changed since the first discs, becoming less cold, more impassioned, and he has an enhanced palette of timbre, too.

It’s beautifully sequenced, leading to my own favourite, Garbarek’s own We Are The Stars, first heard on his Rites album.

Previously, my problem has been in answering the question: do I like this more than a Jan Garbarek album, or than a Hilliard Ensemble album. Previously I have had to conclude negatively. This time, I can say not yes, but as well as. That feels like enough for a  recommendation.



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