Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble, St Paul’s Cathedral, London

St Paul’s was fuller than Christmas Day, and scarcely less reverential. Joint appearances in London for the Norwegian saxophonist and the crystalline vocal quartet are rare; this was only their third visit to St Paul’s since the 1994 release of their best-seller Officium.

The mood was set with a moment of silence and a prayer from a deacon. The ensemble entered from the back of the cathedral singing a Latin introit. Black-suited with shirts in descending monochromes, they might have been priests themselves.

With a sharp dissonance, the Latin leapt into James MacMillan’s “...here in hiding...”, mingling the Gregorian “Adoro Te Devote” with Gerald Manley Hopkins’s translation, Latin and English woven into quarternotes and microtones. At the quiet close, the closing phrases from the tenors hung echoing above muted traffic outside.

Now Garbarek appeared, pacing through the quire, soprano bleating. A medieval “Sanctus” confirmed the rough structure of a mass. Garbarek picked up hints in the vocal line, and made them unfold like a tea flower dropped into hot water.

Garbarek’s saxophone acted as another voice: sometimes echoing the sung proposition, sometimes commenting on it, sometimes rejecting it in an angular attack or mocking it with a jaunty snatch of Norwegian folksong.

The singers fanned out around the cathedral. Arvo Pärt’s “Most Holy Mother Of God”, with repeated unadorned Orthodox cadences, was sung from the west door behind the audience. Midway up the nave, Rogers Covey-Crump, Steven Harrold and David James sang an extended improvisation on Perotin’s Christmas antiphon “Alleluia Nativitas”. Garbarek came to join the trio, eyes dancing, playing high and bright like a pied piper, luring them away with him back to the stage.

The second half veered into Church Slavonic, gruff harmonies with Garbarek at the bottom of his tenor range. At the close came an “Agnus Dei”, over which Garbarek played a broken waltz, pealing down over “qui tollis”. The singers processed off diminuendo into an antechapel, Garbarek’s airy arabesques fading until the cathedral was, for just a moment, utterly silent. ★★★★☆

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