Review: Officium last concert

Michael Tucker finds a "near-Cubist projection of mysterious sound, space and spirit" in the final concert by Jan Garbarek & The Hilliard Ensemble

If all good things must sooner or later come to an end, there could not have been a better venue for the final concert from this most unusual ensemble than a candle-lit King's College Chapel, Cambridge – the place where the Officium project was first launched in concert in July 1994. One special feature of this long sold-out valedictory event on 6 December was the return of founding Hilliard tenor John Potter; another was the presence of ECM producer Manfred Eicher, whose initial idea it was to set Garbarek's saxophone improvisations within and across the diversely figured lines of The Hilliard Ensemble, specialists in both early vocal music and the avant-garde.

“BIZARRE – but it works!” was the cover strap-line which Classic CD used to advertise its early coverage of a phenomenon that would result in three recordings, one of them a million-plus seller and another a double CD, and an extraordinary, ever-unfolding touring schedule which would see the variously developing and changing Officium project presented many hundreds of times across Britain and Europe, America and Scandinavia. A double LP high-grade vinyl album of the initial Officium recording from September 1993 has just been released. 

For all its commercial and critical success, the project has had its detractors, with some comparing the blend of elements in the music to kitsch-prone attempts to turn early black and white films into colour. It's safe to say that no such such critics were present on a bitterly cold yet heart-warming Cambridge evening which found the Officium Ensemble at its very best. David James (counter-tenor), Rogers Covey-Crump (tenor), Steven Harrold (tenor) and Gordon Jones (baritone) were all in pinpoint form, as was John Potter (who contributed an illuminating retrospective piece to the richly conceived programme brochure). The occasion itself could not have been more charged, with performers and audience alike clearly feeling the heightened emotional aura, but the rigorous discipline which has always marked this music was there in full measure. So too was the musicians' special sensitivity to the changing spatial dimensions of their performance as they conjured an at-times near-Cubist projection of mysterious sound, space and spirit.

Anyone who had attended their earlier concerts at the London Jazz Festival in November would have remarked similarities and differences. Sticking to soprano throughout, Garbarek's customary arresting dynamic sensitivity embraced both airy bite and judicious mellifluousness, while Potter's presence helped bring even more variation (including pieces for tenor voices only) to a programme long renowned for its shape-shifting qualities. Garbarek's We Are The Stars was dropped, but his rocking interplay with the ensemble on a sequence of blues-and-folk-turned motifs retained – as was Arvo Pärt's Most Holy Mother Of God. The (recently) traditional encore Remember Me My Dear was given a most beautiful reading, before the last of several standing ovations from the entire house had its reward in an exquisitely pitched performance of Parce Mihi Domine – the opening piece on the initial Officium recording and long the unofficial "hit" of the whole project. 

It was only fitting that, finally, Manfred Eicher joined the ensemble to experience the extraordinary warmth of the audience's extensive approbation. If you were there, you will know how truly special an occasion this was. If you weren't, take heart from the fact that, together with some of the other very recent performances, this King's College Chapel concert was recorded by ECM.

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