October 4, 2010 5:58 pm

Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble, Cambridge

The cold wind from Scandinavia that was chilling Cambridge had also blown in the Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek. Standing at the rood screen of King’s College Chapel as if one of the carved angels with golden trumpets had descended to earth, he blew low soprano phrases that could have been shards of Nordic folk songs. A low murmur rose in response, as if the very stonework were responding, and the four members of the Hilliard Ensemble processed in from the west end.

Officium Novum, the new release whose material formed the basis of this concert, is only the third release by Garbarek and the Hilliards in 15 years. It concentrates on eastern European music, notably music collected a century ago by the Armenian Vaughan Williams, Komitas Vardapet.

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The music is sombre, the voices falling strangely on western ears, though not all the repertoire was so unfamiliar. “Tres Morillas”, an Andalusian tune, stuck out; its sinuous melody was played with surprising stiffness by Garbarek, who is no stranger to Islamic melodic lines. At the centre of the concert, a stark performance of “Most Holy Mother Of God” by Arvo Pärt, its lines repeating with microscopic variation, suddenly opened out into Pérotin’s “Alleluia. Nativitas”, Garbarek’s saxophone leaping and dancing around the singing.

And then the space opened up, with Garbarek and two of the singers processing to the altar and the two other singers going to the west door, so that they traded phrases of Hildegard of Bingen’s “O Ignis Spiritus” down the full 290 feet of the nave.

That was all distance and space; the encore was all tight precision. “Remember Me My Deir” is a 16th-century Scottish song whose melancholic cadences would have brought a tear to the eye of John Dowland. Garbarek started as a quiet descant, then played arabesques over the top, bringing out the anguish in the song’s restraint. (

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