Recording of October 1994: Officium

Medieval & Renaissance Chant & Polyphony by Morales, Perotin, Dufay, de La Rue, Anon.
The Hilliard Ensemble, vocals; Jan Garbarek, soprano & tenor saxes
ECM New Series 78118-21525-2 (CD only). Manfred Eicher, prod.; Peter Laenger, eng. DDD. TT: 77:41

I am, as a rule, a purist when it comes to early-music performances; I like Bach on the harpsichord, Dowland on the lute, etc. So when I was confronted with the concept of this disc, which features the improvisations of jazz saxophonist Jan Garbarek accompanying straightforward performances of medieval and Renaissance works by the Hilliards (without former leader Paul Hillier), I was, to say the least, somewhat skeptical. If I'm still not entirely convinced of the wisdom of such a recording, it is the fault of my own obstinacy, not of the performance.

The idea for this meeting of two musical styles came from producer Manfred Eicher. In his notes, he describes how it evolved from his film Holozän, a story of isolation and the destruction of memory. The intellectual connection between the recording and the film escapes me—Eicher has only limited space in which to explain it—but the emotional connection is obvious. The technical realization of Eicher's vision by Garbarek and the Hilliards is about as perfect as I could imagine it being. I was struck immediately on hearing this CD by the way the saxophonist played what seemed to be exactly the right notes. I could not, after hearing those notes, imagine him having played any others.

I confess that, in spite of this, I didn't find the concept to work all of the time—sometimes even the "right" lines from Garbarek sounded musically superfluous; the beauty of the original compositions only suffers from ornament, no matter how beautifully applied. At other times, however, especially when the tenor sax accompanies the earlier plainchant, it's uncanny how the instrument functions as a fifth voice, amplifying rather than distorting the composers' intentions.

At its best, then, this recording is a fascinating approach to early music—a tonescape as well as a vocal performance. To this end, Eicher and Laenger have done a marvelous job of engineering, with that wonderful sense of space that permeates all of their recent work. First explorations are always difficult and dangerous—this no less than any other. Music and its performance are a journey; this is a step into the unfamiliar, bravely and worthily taken.—Les Berkley