The Hilliard Ensemble is one of the world's finest vocal chamber groups, and is probably unrivalled for its formidable reputation in the fields of both early and new music. Its distinctive style and highly developed musicianship engage the listener as much in medieval and renaissance repertoire as in works specially written for the group by living composers.
The ensemble's performing schedule is busy and varied, amounting to some hundred concerts a year. Its substantial following in Europe, particularly in Mediterranean and central European countries, is augmented by regular visits to Japan, the USA and Canada.
The group's reputation as an early music ensemble dates from the 1980s and its series of highly successful records for EMI (many of which are now re-released on Virgin), but from the start the group has paid equal attention to new music. Their 1988 recording of Arvo Pärt's Passio began a fruitful relationship with both Pärt and the Munich-based record company ECM. This continued with their recording of Arvo Pärt's Litany, which was released in August '96. The group has recently commissioned other composers from the Baltic States, including Veljo Tormis and Erkki-Sven Tüür, adding to a rich repertoire of new music written for the Ensemble by Gavin Bryars, Heinz Holliger, John Casken, James MacMillan, Elena Firsova and others. The group's 1994 composition competition produced over one hundred pieces, many of which have found their way into Hilliard programmes. At its annual summer schools the group provides for a composer-in-residence; past holders of this post have included Ivan Moody, Piers Hellawell, Barry Guy and Gavin Bryars. Many of these composers are represented on the ECM double album A Hilliard Songbook.
In 1994, Officium was released, "one of the biggest crossover hits of the '90s". This was the first of the group's collaborations with the Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek, with whom they have enjoyed huge success throughout the world. 1997 saw the release of the Canadian film Lilies, for which the group provided the soundtrack, and a renewal of their collaboration with Garbarek with the release of Mnemosyne which they have toured in Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy, Spain, Latvia, Lithuania and throughout the UK. The Hilliard Ensemble also commemorated the 500th anniversary of the death of Ockeghem (ca.1410-1497) with special tribute programmes and through the launch of their own mail-order record label, hilliard LIVE. The first issue of hilliard LIVE, Perotin and the Ars Antiqua, was released in 1996, No 2, For Ockeghem, in 1997, and No 3 Antoine Brumel, and No 4 Dufay were released during 1998. For ECM they released works by Lassus in May 1998.
Concerts with major orchestras have included a performance of Pärt's Litany with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and a series with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1999, they premiered Miroirs des Temps by Unsuk Chin, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Kent Nagano. In the same year, a commission from James MacMillan, Quickening, was premiered with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Sir Andrew Davis at the BBC Proms..
During the early part of 2000 tours took The Hilliard Ensemble back to Japan and Australia, to Mexico and to Poland, and ECM released In Paradisum. They toured the UK, Hungary and Germany with Jan Garbarek, and had another successful Hilliard Summer School, based for the first time in Germany. They were resident at the Edinburgh International Festival, where they gave a number of concerts. Autumn 2001 saw the successful release of their most recent ECM collaboration, Morimur with the German violinist Christoph Poppen and soprano Monika Mauch. Based on the research of Professor Helga Thöne, it is a unique interweaving of J.S. Bach's Partita in D minor for solo violin (BWV 1004) with a selection of his Chorale verses crowned by the epic Ciaconna, which unites both instrumentalist and vocalists.
2002 opened with the world premiere of Piers Hellawell's The Pear Tree of Nicostratus in Kaustinen, Finland, with the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra. Commissioned specially for the Kaustinen Festival, the piece continues the long association of the Irish composer with The Hilliard Ensemble. After a month-long Mnemosyne tour of Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand with Jan Garbarek, the group's toured North America with Morimur in April, as well as various other concerts in Europe and a Summer School at Schloss Engers, Germany in August. Also in this year they gave the USA première of MacMillan’s Quickening with the Philadelphia Orchestra. In September 2003 they performed the world premiere performance of the 3rd Symphony of Stephen Hartke with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Lorin Maazel.
In 2004 they celebrated their 30th year with a series of concerts at the Wigmore Hall, appearances at the Holland Festival in a new opera, Gesualdo Considered as a Murderer by Luca Francesconi; performances of Quickening in Liverpool and at the Edinburgh Festival. Recent recordings for ECM New Series include a disc of motets by Machaut, a disc of Nicolas Gombert and the complete J.S. Bach Motets (BWV 225-230) sung with one voice to a part.
In 2007 the group collaborated with the Münchener Kammerorchester with a new work by Erkki-Sven Tüür,. Also in this year the group joined forces with the Dresdner Philharmonie to premiere Nunc Dimittis by the Russian composer Alexander Raskatov and later recorded it for ECM. Work began back in May 2007 on a project with the German composer Heiner Goebbels in a production by the Théâtre Vidy, Lausanne: it will premiere at the Edinburgh Festival in 2008 and go on to tour Europe and the USA in 2008-2009. In 2009-2010 they will work with the Arditti Quartet and the Chilingirian String Quartet amongst others.
In addition to their many collaborations, the group continues to give a cappella concerts of old and new music throughout the world.