LP REVIEW: Jan Garbarek & The Hilliard Ensemble – Officium (Re-release for LP)

Jan Garbarek & The Hilliard Ensemble – Officium
(ECM 1525. LP review by Andrew Cartmel)

Having begun by releasing its music solely on vinyl, the distinguished German label ECM eventually went with the inexorable digital flow and became a CD-only concern. Now, with the vinyl revival well under way, ECM has made the welcome decision to begin issuing vinyl again. And one of their inaugural titles is Officium, which pairs the Norwegian saxophone colossus Jan Garbarek with the British early music vocal quartet The Hilliard Ensemble. Garbarek started out working with the likes of George Russell before he settled in at ECM, recording on over thirty albums there, notably with Keith Jarrett as well as leading his own group. He then modified his style and settled in at ECM, recording on over thirty albums there, notably with Keith Jarrett before become a leader himself. The Hilliard Ensemble was a group which combined performances of early music with work of modern composers, such as Gavin Bryars. Their name refers to the Elizabethan miniaturist painter Nicholas Hilliard — although it also echoes that of the group’s founding member, Paul Hillier. At the time of this recording they consisted of baritone Gordon Jones, tenors John Potter and Rogers Covey-Crump and countertenor David James.

Officium literally translates as ‘office’ but the meaning is ‘service’, as in a church service. The album combines Garbarek’s free form jazz soloing with pieces ranging from Gregorian plainchant through early polyphony to Renaissance motets. It was recorded at Propstei St. Gerold, a Benedictine monastery in the Vorarlberg region of Austria, in September 1993 and was released in 1994. ECM’s timing couldn’t have been more serendipitous. That was the same year that the classical music label Angel re-released their album Chant by the Benedictine monks of Santo Domingo de Silos, which would sell six million copies and make Gregorian monophonic sacred song a surprise smash hit. Officium also proved to be a bestseller, perhaps ECM’s most successful album, with sales rising towards two million. It was originally a CD-only release and now, twenty years later, it is appearing for the first time on vinyl.

Parce Mihi Domine by Christóbal De Morales is the most modern piece here (for modern, read “16th Century”) and is performed three times. Versions featuring Jan Garbarek bookend the album while a purely vocal rendition occurs midway. On the first performance we hear Garbarek’s sax riding and rising over the voices, like the high mast of a ship glimpsed on a storm-tossed sea, rolling and tilting with the turbulence. In Regnantem Sempiterna, a 15th Century piece by an unknown composer, Garbarek’s magnificent, weighty tenor sculpts forms in the cold monastery air, shrieking, wailing and ululating as it cuts through the shadows, before sinking back into them.

In contrast O Salutaris Hostia by Pierre De La Rue, also from the 15th Century, is less remote and chilly, providing an almost Auld Lang Syne feel after the austerity that has gone before, and Garbarek is more celebratory and tender. The voices seem to fold around the sound of the sax and caress it. The beautiful acoustic of St Gerold gives a wonderful clarity and presence to Garbarek’s horn. De Spineto Nata Rosa is another anonymous composition, from 14th Century England, and sees Garbarek’s sax in a bright contrasting argument to the vocal quartet.

Virgo Flagellatur demonstrates how Jan Garbarek’s roiling, plangent saxophone can dwarf all the singers’ voices, with an echo wrapping around it and responding to it like a ghostly second sax, almost doubling the powerful near-bugle-call. This piece is the saxophone highlight of the album with its moody, contemplative and expansive — and quite literally — room filling sound. Now the voices are afloat on a sea of saxophone instead of the other way around, and it’s a bright, almost dazzling sea as if the sun has just risen.

St Gerold monastery was precisely the sort of building these centuries-old songs were intended for, so it’s fascinating to hear how the acoustic responds to the modern sound of a saxophone. The result is strikingly beautiful. The blend of contemporary secular jazz and ancient European spiritual music is an audacious one, but it works strikingly. The novelist Marius Gabriel entitled his review of Officium ‘What Coltrane hears in heaven,’ which sums up the intertwined appeal of these two disparate strands.

ECM’s vinyl revival project is admirable, making painstaking use of the original analog tapes, which will gratify purists. This series of significant albums are also appearing in new CD editions, and as high-resolution download files — the latter being a strange destination for thousand-year-old sacred songs, but a pleasing one.

LINKS: Live Reviews of Garbarek with the Hilliard Ensemble:
St Pauls Cathedral 2009
Bath Abbey 2014
Temple Church 2014
King's College Chapel Cambridge 2014 (final performance)

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