It is all too easy to assume that English Renaissance music – any Renaissance music – is remote and somehow detached from our modern sensibility. But put yourself in the hands of the Hilliard Ensemble for an evening, and there’s nothing a bit of intelligent programming can’t rectify. In this recital with Fretwork, a five-piece orchestra of viola da gamba players, the Hilliards paired early 17th-century court composer Orlando Gibbons with American composer-of-the-moment Nico Muhly. Suddenly Gibbons sounded modern and 31-year-old Muhly became old – “old” meaning in tune with tradition while speaking with his own voice, something that can’t be said for many of his self-consciously “modern” pieces.
Muhly’s My Days, a Wigmore Hall commission, is more than pastiche. It is a tribute to medievalism in its fragrance, concision and concentration, while remaining totally contemporary in its eclecticism and harmonic/rhythmic inflexions. It frames the text of Gibbons’ brief autopsy report (a contemporary blow-by-blow account of how he died) with a setting of Psalm 39, incorporating sentiments and repetitions of which Gibbons himself would have been proud. There’s more than a whiff of Anglican tradition in Muhly’s verses and responses, but he handles his chosen material in a way that is thoughtful, pretty and, yes, substantial. The Hilliards and Fretwork performed My Days as if it were a classic.
Their madrigals sounded no less enchanting. Gibbons’ texts were apparently chosen by a Northamptonshire squire who had not only the royal connections to underwrite musical patronage but also a keen sense of life’s brevity: most of the poems are about the transitory nature of beauty and happiness, expressed in quasi-aphoristic verse that often has a cutting undertow.
Not all of Gibbons’ settings are convincing – “I Waigh not Fortunes frowne nor smile” came across as relentlessly smug – but most extract the maximum musical value from the minimum of resources. And it’s a sign of just how attuned the Hilliards and Fretwork are to this deceptively simple music that it sounded so artless. Fretwork’s treatment of the purely instrumental numbers was sensitive but never precious, and the Hilliards’ intonation remains one of the wonders of modern music.