On January 21, a frigid Tuesday night, complete with bad weather brewing, the world-renowned Hilliard Ensemble drew in a capacity Duke Chapel crowd. We quickly forgot the weather outside. Inside, it was all about the music.

Presented by Duke Performances’ Vocal Ensemble Series as the first event in the 2014 North Carolina HIP Music Festival, the Hilliard Ensemble, consisting of four extraordinary singers – David James, countertenor, Steven Harrold and Rogers Covey-Crump, tenors, and Gordon Jones, baritone – did what it has done best for the past 40 years: sing so beautifully that all else falls away.

Duke Chapel audiences may be far more familiar with large choirs and ensembles performing in this gothic space. And while the Chapel’s cavernous beauty seems to beg for larger-than-life gestures, the Hilliard Ensemble proved size really doesn’t matter here. On Tuesday night, it was all about the incredible musicianship of these seasoned singers. From the moment they walked out, dressed simply in dark clothing with open-necked shirts (the better to free the throat for singing), the concert was about personality, but not that of the individual singers. Instead, each selection became a living organism with a distinct personality, the singers serving as mediums. Clarity of sound, informed interpretation, beautiful tuning, and attention to detail are among the many reasons the Hilliard Ensemble has been so highly respected for so many years. Founded in 1974 and named after the British miniaturist painter Nicholas Hilliard, the Hilliard Ensemble is rightly considered one of the world’s finest vocal chamber ensembles, with a truly formidable reputation in the fields of both old and new music. Medieval and renaissance repertoire forms its heart and soul while modern works, many written specially for the group, show the ensemble’s incredible versatility.

The program opened with a set of pieces by William Cornysh, a poet, actor, and musician serving as Master of the Chapel Royal during the reign of Henry VIII, followed by the gorgeously nuanced anonymous, strophic piece, “Remember me my dear.” Here was the trademark sound the Hilliard Ensemble made famous. Continuing with the likes of Josquin Desprez, one of the greatest Renaissance composers, Clément Janequin, known for his chansons, the Franco-Flemish Jacques Arcadelt, famed for his madrigals, and the innovative madrigalist Cipriano de Rore, the first half of the program provided the audience a true picture of this early vocal era by expertly mixing works of the well-known greats with pieces by little-known and anonymous composers. All were given the singers’ full energy and laser-like focus. Janequin’s “O mal d’aimer” is a particularly rich, gorgeous lament, perfect for this ensemble. The anonymous “Passacalli della vita” is a humorous reminder of our mortality, the translated text ending as follows: “All must have an end. If you think otherwise, you have lost your senses. You’re dead and that’s it: You must die.” In an otherwise serious program, this piece provided a welcome bit of comic relief. The first half ended with five selections from the First Book of Madrigals written for the Hilliard Ensemble by Gavin Bryars, set to poetry by Blake Morrison. The ensemble really came to life in these difficult yet beautiful pieces. Morrison’s poetry casts a late-20th century light on romance and domestic life that is heartbreakingly recognizable to all those in long-term relationships. Bryars’ masterful vocal writing not only makes the most of the four voices but works magic: in places it sounds as though the group has conjured up doppelgängers to beef up the sound. One would swear there are more than four singers.

The second half of the program brought music history to life with Pérotin’s remarkable Viderunt Omnes, its elaborate, flowing melismas filling the chapel with what can only be described as an eternity of sound. Far from being a dry, academic example of 12th-century music of the school of Notre Dame de Paris, Pérotin’s music pulsed with life. Desprez’s gorgeous and well-known “Ave Maria” followed. The remainder of the program was devoted primarily to music by Arvo Pärt, the Estonian composer with whom the Hilliard Ensemble has had a close and fruitful relationship for many years. “And one of the Pharisees” (1990) is a simple but dramatic setting for vocal trio of words from the 7th chapter of Luke’s Gospel. Pärt follows longstanding tradition by giving Jesus’ words to the baritone. A literal setting of the gospel’s lengthy narrative, the group’s clear diction throughout was remarkable. Sharakans, a set of four lovely, haunting pieces of traditional Armenian church music arranged by Komitas Vardapet, were followed by Pärt’s other-worldly “Most Holy Mother of God.’ Its text, a litany to Mary to save us, serves as a heartfelt plea for a hurting world. A standing ovation brought the ensemble out to sing its only American piece: an arrangement of Peter Erskine‘s “Romeo and Juliet.”

In today’s multi-media world, one can hardly imagine four voices (sometimes just three, depending upon the piece), singing completely a cappella, with no bells or whistles or instruments or microphones or choreography to distract, captivating an audience for such a length of time. But as these remarkable singers made their way through the program, time itself seemed to fall away, and many of us would have been happy to stay another hour or two, glorying in rarely-heard pieces so pristinely interpreted. It was with sadness we recently learned that the Hilliard Ensemble is on its farewell tour and that the Duke Chapel concert, as baritone Gordon Jones simply stated, “is our first and, sadly, also our last performance in this marvelous acoustic.” What a privilege, then, to be a part of the audience for this historic event. One wonders if future vocal ensembles will ever be able to fill these shoes, and whether we will ever again be treated to such purely magical renditions of such a wide variety of vocal treasures. The Hilliard Ensemble is, after all, part of an older world, one in which depth supersedes sound bites, in which music history comes alive, a world where glitz and glamor are found only in the music, not in the personalities onstage. There is humility in these singers one rarely sees these days. What a mixed sense of loss and gratitude accompanies their farewell performances!