There was a time not long past when music lovers -- even knowledgeable ones -- pretty much figured that great music began with Bach and Handel.

Early music from the medieval and Renaissance periods was the exclusive province of musicologists and a few dedicated ensembles that performed and recorded in relative obscurity.

But as anyone who cruises the CD bins knows, those days are over.

Early music has become big box-office as many conductors and their groups have been navigating through this once-forgotten territory, turning up many remarkable pieces and composers in the process.

Machaut, Binchois, Dufay, Perotin and their Renaissance successors are now readily available to any listener who wishes to connect artistically with the first few centuries of the millennium.

The Hilliard Ensemble, an all-male vocal group from London, is one of the most distinguished of the early music organizations. Their recordings on Angel's Reflexe label and elsewhere have been lauded from all quarters of the music world.

Four of the Hilliards appeared in concert at St. John's College last Friday evening and a large, enthusiastic audiencehad the pleasure of hearing definitive performances from this exacting and exotic repertoire.

It is hard to overstate the complexitiesinvolved in performing the music of the medieval period. The usual rhythmic and harmonic signposts virtually disappear. Bar lines barely exist while the open harmonies present intonation problems guaranteedto send conductors running to the nearest ale-houses for solace.

It is also music of great density. All voice parts are invariably on the move, spinning out churning melismas that run on forever, turningsingers every which way but loose in the process.

But from the Hilliard Ensemble, these complexities are handled with an incisive clarity that communicates the intensity and beauty of the music.

Theirstrengths as an ensemble are many. Crescendos and decrescendo are negotiated with pin-point control.

The four voices maintain their individuality yet blend beautifully.

David James, for example, is not the most mellifluous of counter-tenors, but his straight, penetrating tone is a perfect match for the demands of this music and for the vocal timbre of his colleagues.

This is truly a distinguished ensemble.

In fact, the only minor negative of this exceptional concertthat featured the "Gloria" of the Machaut Mass, madrigals by Purcelland Morley, a Josquin motet and several anonymous compositions from the 12th and 14th centuries, was the inclusion of a pair of unpleasant 20th-century works that ought to have been summarily dismissed by an ensemble of this pedigree.

Arvo Part's uneventful setting of the"Credo" was simply interminable, as was John Cage's silly "Litany for the Whale," in which the letters W-H-A-L-E are broken down into their linguistic components and chanted "ad nauseam." I found it almost as boring as New Age music.

But it was a small price to pay for the opportunity to hear Josquin's "Tu Solis Qui Facis Mirabilia" delivered with such artistic integrity.

What a gift St. John's bestows on us with its concert series. Last year, an extraordinary Schubert B-flat piano trio provided by the Bilson-Ritchie-Bylasma ensemble.

This season, a 900-year musical journey courtesy of one of the world'smost prestigious vocal groups.

At St. John's, they do great stuffeven when they're not reading great books.

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