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Review: Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble at Durham Cathedral

FOR many musicians, creating a sound worthy of Durham’s magnificent cathedral would be an intimidating task.

Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek

FOR many musicians, creating a sound worthy of Durham’s magnificent cathedral would be an intimidating task.

But seasoned Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek’s collaboration with vocal chamber group The Hilliard Ensemble not only filled the cathedral with world-class music, it recognised the musical possibilities offered by such a vast and atmospheric space.

The concert’s opening was perhaps the best example of this. With Garbarek playing simple, haunting, eastern-sounding phrases on his soprano, slowly it became apparent he was playing over a very quiet line of accompaniment coming from somewhere nobody could quite place.

In fact, it was coming from the ensemble as they walked to their positions from various points in the cathedral, past us in the aisles, the quality and resonance in their voices incredible to hear at such close quarters.

The musicians continued to move around the cathedral a great deal during the performance, constantly changing the quality of the sound and giving the concert a dramatic feel, as if we were watching some ritual.

Perhaps one of the most striking things about Garbarek’s playing was his ability to blend seamlessly with the vocal group, at times blurring the line between his instrument and the voices it was complementing.

There were moments when he would double up on a note sung by one of the vocal ensemble, slightly altering the texture of the sound in the process. It was a masterclass in subtle playing.

He would move between fleshing out the vocal harmonies to soaring way above the top line sung by countertenor David James.

At various points, particularly when playing alone, he would slowly state arpeggios in a way which created the illusion that he was somehow playing chords on the saxophone, letting the harmonies ring out. Many of the pieces, from the collaborators’ most recent album, Officium Novum, continued the eastern theme.

By contrast, towards the end of the set the vocal ensemble moved closer to Garbarek’s jazz territory, singing in more rhythmic bursts and allowing him to improvise over their backing in the blues tradition.

The set finished with another clever use of the huge space, with the musicians leaving the main body of the cathedral slowly and creating, in effect, a natural fade-out.

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