Officium Novum completes a stunning trilogy that began back in 1993 when Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek and British vocal quartet The Hilliard Ensemble first collaborated on the original Officium album. Released the next year, it blended pure unaccompanied voices with soaring saxophone on a programme of medieval church music. Unpredictably, that unique combination was an immediate success. The album became one of the biggest sellers on the ECM label and hit the charts in several countries.
In 1999, the five released a follow-up, the double album Mnemosyne, which featured a more adventurous range of music adding traditional and world music plus Garbarek compositions. Admirers of those albums have long been anticipating the arrival of Officium Novum. Despite the similar album title, it is not a re-recording or repackaging of Officium but consists entirely of pieces recorded in June 2009, including Armenian church music, two Garbarek originals and Arvo Part's Most Holy Mother of God.
The compatibility between the voices and saxophone will please both jazz aficionados and followers of choral music. Garbarek's saxophone acts as a fifth voice, harmonising with the other four. He also improvises melodic lines that swoop out of the ensemble, creating an exhilarating feeling of lightness and freedom.
As with the first two albums, the recording took place at the St Gerold monastery in Austria. Chosen for its acoustics, the monastery is an important element in the Officium story. The resounding natural reverberation it adds to the music gives it greater depth and majesty than would be expected from four voices and a saxophone. When Garbarek and The Hilliard Ensemble perform live, they generally play in venues with a similar ambience, such as St Paul's Cathedral or King's College Chapel, Cambridge.
While some listeners may potentially feel alienated by the use of such Christian locations and by the religious connotations of some of the repertoire, they should not let them spoil their enjoyment. Sung in various languages, the music carries no overtly religious messages and is not attempting to preach to anyone. Instead, those of any faith or of no faith can appreciate its simple beauty.