Stile Antico's latest reviews appear in full below. For briefer press highlights, please follow the links above.
18.4.13 The Washington Post at the Library of Congress
Sometimes the best way to champion early music is to perform it as beautifully as possible and forget about how it might have been performed when it was composed. This was exactly what the English chamber choir Stile Antico did, once again, in its exquisite concert Wednesday night at the Library of Congress, a venue with more suitable acoustics for unaccompanied Renaissance polyphony than the choir had for its Washington debut two years ago.
With just 12 singers, and in some cases fewer, the group achieved a balanced blend of sound, each part taking and then ceding its turn in the layering of parts. All entrances and conclusions lined up, careful coordination among singers obviating the need for a conductor, and the tuning of harmonies and unity of vowels were nearly immaculate. The program was presented as an "overview of the national styles of the [late] Renaissance," but it also happened to be a survey of the group’s series of excellent recordings on the Harmonia Mundi label. If the group has a specialty, it is English polyphony, and motets by William Byrd, Thomas Tallis and especially "The Lord's Prayer" by John Sheppard stood out.
The sensitivity of the performance put delightful details that might otherwise go unnoticed into relief, such as the seven-part entrances — like a multifaceted jewel — in Clemens non Papa's "Ego Flos Campi" and the many repetitions of "et semini ejus" scattered like seeds through Gombert's "Magnificat primi toni." Each half concluded grandly with a 12-part tour de force, the perfectly tuned dissonant clusters of John McCabe’s "Woefully Arrayed," a new work composed for the group in 2009, and the climactic, many-voiced shouts of Praetorius's triple-choir "Tota pulchra es." To borrow the translation for the word "Amen" used at the end of the Sheppard motet: "Always so be it." (Charles T. Downey)
16.4.13 The Vancouver Sun at the Chan Centre
A top British vocal ensemble of young singers made a welcome return visit to the Chan Centre Friday evening under the auspices of Early Music Vancouver. Stile Antico is the latest thing in the long. distinguished tradition of British vocal music: the group specializes in historically informed performance of Renaissance polyphony, but makes women's voices an integral—some might even go so far as to say long overdue—part of the mix.
The gap between choral cultures here and in the UK couldn't have been made more clear by the program concept: an anthology of smallish Easter-time works by disparate composers, all (save one contemporary example written especially for the group) from the 16th century. This was focused, thoughtful programming which, frankly, made significant demands on listeners. But how worthwhile it proved! Working within a common musical lingua franca, Flemish, English, and Spanish composers demonstrated unmistakable, utterly distinctive ways of handling sonority, counterpoint, and text. Stile Antico is capable of great nuance, emphasis, and expression, and they go straight to the heart of each concentrated musical experience.
In an evening of consistently magnificent music-making, two Spanish works by Victoria and Morales showed me an impassioned side of the group I'd otherwise not encountered when I heard them last. Flashier works by Gibbons and Lassus, and a concluding exuberant showpiece by William Byrd, were delivered with remarkable power and precision, exquisite style, and total confidence.
The program's one anomaly was a 2009 setting by British master John McCabe of "Woefully arrayed," an odd text (rather uncertainly attributed to John Skelton) which also set by William Cornysh, and the first work on the program. This is not pretty choral kitch designed to pander to lazy audiences: the writing is as harsh and visceral as its painful and uncompromising text. McCabe has created an impressive work whose harrowing changes in texture and articulation underscore deep ideas.
Impressive in a casual, even slightly sentimental way was the single, perfectly considered encore: Campion’s pristine "Never weather-beaten sail,"—simple music created with elegant restraint. Obviously child’s play to perform in comparison to the rest of the evening’s playlist, it was sung with nonchalant, totally winning fervor. (David Gordon Duke)
8.4.13 The Boston Globe enjoys Stile Antico in Cambridge, MA
CAMBRIDGE — The presenter (the Boston Early Music Festival) and the program (a tour d’horizon of Renaissance choral music) might have indicated antiquity, but Stile Antico’s Friday concert was, in a way, a reminder that all concerts are new music concerts. Of course, even the oldest piece was new at some point, and performance is always an act of renewal, reintroducing music into the present. But Stile Antico, a 12-member British vocal ensemble, also exemplifies the way that the early-music movement itself is an artifact of the modern world, and how that movement has evolved its own versions of tradition and novelty.
Like modern-music performance practice, early music idealizes a combination of rarified specialization and free-ranging versatility. Stile Antico’s program traversed most of Europe and from the early 1500s to the early 1600s — and beyond. As if to honor the modern provenance of such ancient explorations, the group included a 21st-century piece, John McCabe’s “Woefully arrayed,” premiered by Stile Antico in 2009. The music is a contemporary amalgam, episodic illustrations of a 16th-century meditation on the sufferings of Jesus: harsh dissonance to disjunct lyricism to shimmering tonality. But the work’s demands were those common to early music and the avant-garde: clarity, virtuosity, and precision.
Stile Antico has a surfeit of such qualities. Its sound is an uncanny blend: Vowels were unerringly matched, and more than one interval was tuned with such exactitude that the overtones echoed as loud as the voices. Their meticulous ease illustrates how standard early-music vocal style — the straight-tone focus, the intimate austerity, individual lines arranged into burnished arcs — has become as much a vehicle as an interpretive end.
An opening trio of Flemish-styled works — the learned tableaux of Nicolas Gombert’s long “Magnificat Primi Toni” answered by two settings from the Song of Songs, Clemens non Papa’s organ-like “Ego flos campi” and Orlando Lassus’s bubbling “Veni, dilecti mi” — were all unhurried in tempo and polished smooth. More vigorous articulations sparked William Byrd’s “Vigilate,” which opened a stretch of English works that alternated lively (Thomas Tomkins’s “O praise the Lord” and Orlando Gibbons’s “O clap your hands,” Tudor church music at its most genially bouncy) with lush: Thomas Tallis’s “In pace” and John Sheppard’s setting of “The Lord’s Prayer” — not to mention Tallis’s “O sacrum convivium,” an encore — were like slow-motion billows of velvet. (Matthew Guerrieri)
28.3.13 Planet Hugill reviews Stile Antico at the Wigmore Hall
Stile Antico is a vocal ensemble making a name for itself performing a wide variety of Early Music without a conductor. For their concert at the Wigmore Hall on Tuesday 26 March 2013 they performed a seasonal programme, Miserere: penitential Music by Byrd and his Contemporaries, with music not only by William Byrd, but by Thomas Tallis, Thomas Morley, John Sheppard and Robert White. Fielding some twelve singers (with all women on the alto line), the group in fact almost moves from vocal ensemble to chamber choir.
They performed in a semi-circle, alternating men and women, ensuring that all members had good eye contact. The sense of informed communication and lively interchange (both vocal and non-vocal) was a strong feature of the evening. As befitted the season, the music was all sombre and penitential with Robert White's Lamentations concluding part one, and William Byrd's Infelix ego concluding part two.
The opened with Byrd's Miserere mei from his second volume of Cantiones Sacrae published in 1591. In fact the concert coincided with the 450th anniversary of William Byrd's appointment to Lincoln Cathedral. The group made a very full sound, especially when they used all twelve singers in Byrd's five-part motet. I was conscious of all the singers producing a good firm line, but also noted the way the individual voices blended into a whole.
Byrd and Tallis received a music printing monopoly from Queen Elizabeth I and they produced a joint publication, Cantiones Sacrae in 1575. But they issued no more music in Tallis's lifetime (they continued to print music paper however). After Tallis's death Byrd produced two volumes in quick succession, the Cantiones Sacrae of 1589 and 1591.
All these motets set Latin texts, many of them with little or no liturgical usage. The music was probably produced largely for the domestic market. We should think of the musically literate Elizabethan extended family at home singing these as vocal chamber music. But we are also coming to understand that there was a sub-text in Byrd's Latin motets, that the titles and subject matter helped to send coded messages to the Roman Catholic community underground.
Tallis's Salvator Mundi I comes from the 1575 Cantiones Sacrae. Stile Antico brought to the work a lovely feeling of line and a beautiful simplicity. Next came Thomas Morley's Nolo mortem peccatoris of 1616. Though Morley was a pupil of Byrd, the motet is rather in an older style with a macaronic text mixing Latin and English, being in Stile Antico's hands very affecting.
Though numbering twelve singers, not all sang in every item and for Byrd's Memento Homo (from the 1575 Cantiones Sacrae) just six singers were used. The work's penitential nature was emphasised by the way Byrd misses of sopranos, setting it for six lower voices (ATTBaBaB). The lower parts gave it an enormously dark, rich chocolatey sound, though with so many lower male voices the part writing did rather merge. The group expanded up to ten singers for Tallis's Absterge Domine, though the motet kept the rather dark texture, the whole had a rather seductive sound quality.
Just four singers performed Tallis's Purge me O Lord, giving a welcome break from richer textures. The piece survives only in a keyboard version from the Mulliner Book of around 1550. Its homophonic textures put it closer to the simple, direct projecting of text preferred during Edward VI's reign. With just four voices, the parts were projected with less blend and far more sense of individual voices.
The first half closed with all twelve singers performing Robert White's Lamentations. Robert White (c. 1538 - 1574) was organist at Westminster Abbey and was married to Christopher Tye's daughter, but White and his family all died in the plague of 1574. The musical fashion for settings of Lamentations in Elizabethan England is slightly puzzling. The Anglican Church of the time had no liturgical use for them and in fact White sets a rather distinctive and personal section of verses. He sets six verses, each preceded by a long melismatic setting of the initial Hebrew letter, sung by the whole choir. Each group of three verses is concluded with the text Jerusalem, turn to the Lord your God. It is a large and complex work, perhaps we can again imagine our Elizabethan family this time celebrating Holy Week by singing this work with its profoundly penitential text and wonderfully satisfying musical textures. White's writing is quite sober, with much harmonic interest but with no fancy gestures. The singers gave a richly satisfying performance, they were not frightened of using full voice and singing out, bringing the climaxes to the heights of passion.
Part two opened with a pair of works from the 1575 Cantiones Sacrae. Byrd's Emendemus in melius was mainly homophonic but nonetheless beautiful. By contrast, Tallis's In jejunio et fletu is astonishing, Tallis used modern musical devices to characterise the weeping and wailing, approaching far closer to advanced continental harmony than was usual.
Byrd's Attend mine humble prayer comes from his Songs of Sundrie Natures, published in 1589. The piece is in just three parts and Stile Antico performed it using just three singers, giving full reign to the expressive counterpoint. A deceptively simple work, it is one which leaves no hiding places for the performers.
All twelve performers returned for the following pair of works, both Misereres from the 1575 Cantiones Sacrae with Byrd and Tallis producing the two works in friendly rivalry. Tallis's Miserere nostri is a triple canon for seven voices which hides its learning well. Tallis creates a hypnotic, slow moving sound with sopranos floating magically above the lower textures, though I have to admit that I wondered if some of the rhythmic timing might have been a little smudged. Byrd's Miserere mihi has a more turbulent texture than the Tallis. The work is quite richly structured and Stile Antico brought a lovely flow to the performance. John Sheppard's Haste thee O God dates from the reign of Edward VI, so it is mainly homophonic but expressive nonetheless.
Finally, the group performed another substantial work, Byrd's three-part motet Infelix ego setting part of Savanorola's meditation on Psalm 51, published in Cantiones Sacrae of 1591. Again, we are unclear quite why Byrd chose to set Savanorola's text, perhaps the combination of Savanorola himself being persecuted (his meditations were supposedly written on the eve of his execution) with way the text talks of finding no refuge on earth, but a refuge in God. In many ways the piece looks both backwards and forwards. Byrd uses the rather old-fashioned early Tudor technique of having different sections of the work sung by different groups of voices, but he also has a very modern sense of engagement with the text. His setting is coloured by the meaning of the text as it moves from self pity and despair to hope in God. Stile Antico gave a quite measured, rather dignified account of the work though one not lacking in passion.
The choice of repertoire gave the evening a rather sombre feel. Though the performances were superb, there was also a slight feeling that the speeds were generally on the steady side with only a moderated ebb and flow. Perhaps some stronger contrast was required in the types of work sung. One of the distinctive things about the concert was the way that the singers, placed in a semi-circle, did not look at the audience but instead at each other. Unlike many groups, they did not perform to the audience though there was never any feeling of the performance being held back, instead we had the feeling that we were listening in on a highly polished performance. But in the end we came back to the fact that the musicianship of the group is astonishing, especially as they achieve everything without conductor.
The audience were rightly enthusiastic and we were treated to an encore, Thomas Tallis's O Sacrum Convivium. (Robert Hugill)
27.3.13 Boulezian on Stile Antico at the Wigmore Hall
Other commitments have thwarted my hopes on at least a couple of other occasions to hear Stile Antico at the Wigmore Hall. Having heard excellent things about the group, I was not to be disappointed in this concert of music not necessarily written for Holy Week, though some of it certainly was, yet eminently suited to performance at a time of Lenten penitence. Though the Arts and Crafts cupola above the stage is secular in theme – the Soul of Music gazing upwards to the Genius of Harmony – it often seems to me to have something of the sanctuary to it. On this occasion, it almost seemed as if a little of Westminster Cathedral or indeed the chapel at my present college, Royal Holloway, University of London, had come to Wigmore Street, and very welcome that imaginary visitation was too.
As one of the winning, informative spoken introductions mentioned, boundaries between domestic and church music were often blurred during this period. That was not just the case for recusants; conforming congregations would often like to perform music at home, though naturally not every congregant would have the musical ability to sing Byrd and Tallis. At any rate, a nice balance was struck, a balance that varied according to the work, between ‘domestic’ intimacy and a fuller, rich sound heard when all twelve members of Stile Antico sang. The starkest contrast in that respect would be when Byrd’s Attend mine humble prayer, granted just three solo voices, was followed by the full complement of a dozen for Tallis’s Miserere nostri. Variation in forces never, however, precluded continuity in performance; it was accomplished with minimal fuss, unlike some of those concerts in which rearrangement seems almost to take as long as performance itself.
Byrd’s Miserere mei offered pleasingly full, rich sound to open with. Anachronistic though it may be to describe this as ‘Anglican’ music, it has certainly become so, Byrd proving not just a staple but a highpoint of music lists for ‘quires and places where they sing’. It was not long before I almost imagined I could see the candles of Evensong, taken back to my undergraduate days in which the mixed choir of Jesus College, Cambridge, benefited from an organ scholar with particular enthusiasm for Byrd (and equally creditably, a particular lack of enthusiasm for the more meretricious fringes of the nineteenth-century repertory). Tallis followed, with the first Salvator mundi from the 1575 Cantiones sacrae, jointly published by him and Byrd. Tone was plangent without being puritanical. The music was permitted to speak, as it were, ‘for itself’, but not in the occasionally bland fashion that can emerge from groups who treasure purity a little too much and stress the words not quite enough. Dissonances were not exaggerated – a common failing in the opposite direction – but were felt in tandem with the text beseeching the redeeming Saviour of the world for succour. In a sense, they tantalised all the more for that, rather than being presented as faux Gesualdo.
Relative simplicity was offered in Morley’s Nolo mortem peccatoris, but the painful meaning was clear throughout, the Latin burden offering carefully judged contrast of hope with the English verse of ‘painful smart’. As so often, the alto line offered especially piquant suffering – I certainly do not mean that pejoratively! – in Tallis’s Absterge Domine. The request that God remember His good will – ‘bonae voluntatis’ – seemed to receive subtle emphasis, a sign at least of hope. Robert White’s Lamentations received a fuller, more choral rendition, following the four single voices allotted Tallis’s Purge me, O Lord, though clarity remained paramount. An unhurried performance proved attentive in equal measure to music and text. In the face of such an imploring setting, less overtly so than the soon-to-come seconda prattica of Monteverdi and the nascent Baroque, but subtly apparent nonetheless, how could the words ‘Hierusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum’ (‘Jerusalem, turn to the Lord thy God’) not be heeded?
Serenity, again skilfully avoiding the aforementioned snare of blandness, was to be heard in Byrd’s Emendemus in melius. The harmonic spice of Tallis’s In jejunio et fletu was well judged, not least on account of the fine balance struck once again between verbal and musical expression. Three solo voices might be a difficult texture, but it did not sound so, whether in work or performance, in Byrd’s effortlessly negotiated – at least apparently so – Attend mine humble prayer. Tallis’s Miserere nostri was taken with glorious breadth – and yet, to take an apocryphal quotation out of context, it moved. John Sheppard’s Haste thee o God may have been ‘older’, but this piece from the reign of Edward VI, did not necessarily sound so; indeed, its (deceptive) simplicity in some senses at least looked forward as much as back. Byrd’s masterly Infelix ego received a fine performance in conclusion, Janus-faced, harking back to the rich heritage of the votive antiphon and forward-looking in its more ‘modern’, text-focused quality. Above all, it benefited from a keen sense of overarching form, not as something containing, let alone constricting, but as liberating framework for expression. It is difficult not to wish that such a glorious piece of music, every inch the equal of England’s greatest later composers such as Purcell and Birtwistle, might go on forever, but in its ultimate finitude, whatever its undeniable expansiveness, there lies a Lenten message too. For a fitting encore, we returned to Tallis: an exquisitely blended performance of O sacrum convivium. (Mark Berry, Boulezian)
7.1.13 The Classical Reviewer on 'Passion and Resurrection'
In the years since the pioneering David Wulstan founded the Clerkes of Oxenford, way back in 1964, the number of specialist early music choirs in Britain has increased enormously. In recent years many of these choirs have expanded their range and taken on contemporary repertoire which is an aspect of a new release featuring Stile Antico.
Their latest release from Harmonia Mundi, Passion and Resurrection, groups together works by composers of the late 16th and early 17th century that relate to the events of Holy Week. Showing their commitment to a broader range of music, Stile Antico have arranged this CD around a central performance of John McCabe’s own setting of the text Woefully Arrayed set by William Cornysh that starts this disc.
In Woefully Arrayed by William Cornysh (1465-1523) Stile Antico have a richness of texture and directness of delivery that projects Cornysh's setting very effectively. Whilst the Tallis Scholars on Gimell show a little more variety of feeling, Stile Antico's directness and power is most attractive and, in Orlando Gibbons' (1583-1625) Hosanna to the Son of David, the music really soars in a lovely performance.
The choir builds up a fine blend of textures as Thomas Tallis' (c.1505-1585) O Sacrum Convivium progresses. Again the music really takes off with the genius of Tallis really shining through. I found this wonderfully rich performance the highlight of the disc. In the setting of In Monte Oliveti by Orlande Lassus (1532-1594) Stile Antico bring a real sense of the passion and drama to the words 'Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me'.
Cristobal de Morales' (c.1500-1553) O Crux, ave, spes unica has a beautiful ebb and flow with remarkable control. Towards the end the female voices soar beautifully over the choir. Stile Antico bring an intense feel to Tomas Luis de Victoria' O Vos omnes with sensitivity and passion in the words 'if there be any sorrow like to my sorrow.'
John McCabe (b.1939) wrote his own setting of Woefully Arrayed as the result of a commission from the Three Choirs Festival. It is dedicated to Stile Antico. There are subtle dissonances before, at the words 'unkindly, harshly, threatening' the music becomes more strident. Whilst the music soon returns to a quite lamentation a certain stridency always lurks. This work contrasts against the subtle writing of the early composers who knew how to bring out the feeling and pain of the passion story without resort to violent contrasts. Nevertheless, on its own terms, McCabe's setting provides an effective and varied, if slightly meandering work.
John Taverner's (c.1490-1545) Dum transisset brings us back to the beauty of the 16th century in a lovely setting, taken at a steady pace that allows the music to unfold naturally. Stile Antico are very much of their own mind by taking around two minutes longer than The Sixteen on Hyperion's budget Helios label. The Sixteen have a brighter sound, less rich, though this might be due to the recording and acoustic. Either way this new recording never drags and again provides a lovely richness that other performances often lack.
The setting of Maria Magdalene by Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599) brings some light in this fast flowing performance of a setting relating to Mary Magdalene at Jesus' tomb. William Byrd's (1540-1623) setting of In resurrection tua further brightens the mood in a finely sung performance.
I have to confess to not knowing the music of Jean Lheritier (c.1480-c.1551), but I found his exquisite Matins responds Surrexit pastor bonus a lovely work beautifully realised by Stile Antico. Orlando Gibbons is further represented on this disc by his setting of I am the Resurrection and the Life. Stile Antico keep the music moving in a flowing performance, rising and falling naturally and bringing a gentle joy to the music.
Thomas Crecquillon's (c.1505-c. 1557) celebratory setting of Congratulamini mihi concludes this disc with Stile Antico's female voices opening the work and the choir as a whole providing a wonderful variety of texture in a setting that perhaps lacks its own variety.
Stile Antico bring their own distinctive sound to this repertoire that adds a richness and strength to the music. There is excellent sound from the ample acoustic of All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London and the CD is beautifully produced with details from 15th century English and Flemish Book of Hours on the cover, booklet and insert.
28.12.12 MusicWeb International names P&R 'CD of the Month'
This is the third disc from Stile Antico to come my way for review. Just over a year ago I was deeply impressed by their wonderful album of Tudor Christmas music, Puer natus est. Subsequently, I reviewed their last disc, Tune thy Musicke to thy Hart, and whilst, purely as a matter of subjective taste, I wasn't quite as carried away by all the repertoire on that programme I admired, nonetheless, the consistently very high performance standards. Now they're back with another collection of pieces of Renaissance polyphony recorded at their usual venue, All Hallows' Church, Gospel Oak. The pieces they've chosen are all for Holy Week and Easter.
Unusually for this group, I believe, the disc includes a piece of contemporary music in the shape of John McCabe's Woefully arrayed. This was commissioned by the Three Choirs Festival and premièred by Stile Antico at the 2009 Festival in Hereford. I'm often struck by how well a good piece of contemporary music can sit with pre-Classical music and this is a case in point, for McCabe's is a good piece. He's deliberately chosen to set the same words that William Cornysh used some five centuries earlier, namely three verses from a poem whose author is unknown but may have been John Skelton (1460-1529). The words offer a meditation on the Crucifixion and are written as if they had been spoken by the crucified Christ himself. McCabe's setting is unified by a motif to which the title words are set. At the start this is heard as jagged, stabbing music and at each subsequent appearance we hear a variant on that treatment. The textures are often spare and the writing is economical of means - as was Cornysh's setting. Often McCabe's music is, fittingly, stark and uncompromising with gritty harmonic language. It's a powerful and effective piece, which receives a committed and sensitive performance here for its first recording. Stile Antico customarily perform without a conductor and I would imagine that, as a result, this piece must present particular challenges though you'd never know from hearing their assured delivery of it.
The setting of the same words by William Cornysh, which opens the programme, is rather unusual in that it's not as ornate in style as other pieces by him that I’ve heard. Matthew O'Donovan, a member of Stile Antico, explains that in his very useful notes: this was a devotional 'carol', designed for domestic performance, he says. Hence, like some of the pieces on the group’s album, Tune thy Musicke to thy Hart, it's more direct in expression and simpler in style than a piece of church music might have been.
The remainder of the programme includes music by English, Flemish and Iberian composers. Among the English contributions Tallis's O sacrum convivium stands out. It's a wonderful, serene anthem to the Blessed Sacrament. The performance by Stile Antico is notable for the exemplary control, not least of line, which the singers exhibit. I love the way they build the intensity of piece very naturally. Even better, if one may compare miniature masterpieces, is Taverner's Dum transisset. In my humble opinion this glorious piece is one of the most exquisite examples of Tudor polyphony. Stile Antico convey the gentle ecstasy of Taverner's inspired setting in one of the most perfect renditions of it that I can recall hearing.
It's interesting to compare the response of Francisco Guerrero to a similar text. His music in Maria Magdalene is more overtly joyful than Taverner's. The performance here is delightfully light. I don’t recall hearing Lhéritier's Surrexit Pastor bonus before but I'm glad it's on this programme because it's a fine and interesting piece and it's given the best possible advocacy by Stile Antico.
That last comment holds true for everything on this disc. Whether they're singing music that's gritty (John McCabe), serene (Tallis), austerely devotional (Victoria) or exuberant (Gibbons' Hosanna to the Son of David) Stile Antico are wonderful and expert advocates for the music in question. The group consists of twelve singers - reinforced by up to three more in a few of the pieces here - and, as I remarked earlier, they always sing without a conductor. The unanimity, balance, blend and consistent excellence of ensemble is, therefore, all the more remarkable. The singing is flawless throughout this disc yet this flawless standard is not achieved by making the music sound studied or antiseptic. On the contrary, the music is always full of life and the performances have flair and interest. k
I listened to this disc as a conventional CD with excellent results: the sound is clear yet atmospheric. I would imagine that the SACD sound is even more impressive. Everything about this disc is outstanding: the music, the recorded sound, the artwork, the documentation and, of course, the performances. This is another very impressive achievement by Stile Antico. (John Quinn)
23.12.12 The Boston Globe reviews 'Passion and Resurrection'
Sure, it's still Christmas season, but you've got to be thinking ahead to the next big Christian holiday. It's hard to imagine a better way to do so than with this superb collection of Easter and Holy Week music by Stile Antico, which now finds itself at the apex of early-music vocal groups. Central to this recording are a pair of settings of "Woefully arrayed," an imagined reflection of Jesus on the cross. William Cornysh's version, from around the turn of the 16th century, leads off, building from a somber opening to something close to affirmation. In the middle of the CD is John McCabe's setting, written for Stile Antico in 2009. McCabe takes the Cornysh version as inspiration but produces biting, dissonant music that exists in a completely different rhetorical world. It’s the group's first venture into contemporary music, and it's brought off with the same level of insight and tonal richness that Stile Antico brings to centuries-old material.
Of that there is plenty here, including John Tavener's elaborate setting of "Dum transisset" and Thomas Tallis's "O sacrum convivium," whose orderly exterior hides a wealth of pungent harmonies and dexterous word painting. Perhaps the most enjoyable works on "Passion and Resurrection" are the shortest and simplest: Orlando Gibbons’s "Hosanna to the son of David" and William Byrd's "In Resurrectione tua." A minor quibble is the church acoustic, the reverb of which threatens to swallow the immediacy of Stile Antico's sound, one of the principal pleasures of this group. That aside, this is another strong entry in the annals of this immensely talented group.(David Weininger)
22.12.12 The Independent at the Wigmore Hall
To a full house, and broadcast live on Radio 3, the hugely popular Stile Antico a cappella group delivered an appropriately seasonal programme of motets and masses by Tallis and Byrd.
As Rick Jones observed in his programme essay, the very different political and religious climates in which these composers worked were reflected in their music. Tallis wrote his Missa Puer natus est nobis at a time when the Latin mass was freely enjoyed, but under the Elizabethan persecution Byrd’s motets had to be sung in secrecy: imprisonment was the least a Catholic priest could expect if discovered celebrating mass, with a disgustingly obscene public butchery being a not uncommon punishment. Tallis's music is opulent and expansive, while Byrd's has a clandestine intensity suggesting furtive meetings in secret rooms. Jones drew an apt analogy between the coded motifs in Byrd's music and those in Shostakovich's works.
Stile Antico did full justice to these composers' contrasting styles, revelling in the muscular dissonances of Tallis and in the intricate magnificence of Byrd’s polyphonies; the Old Testament lament – "Zion is made a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation" – came over with dark seriousness, while their encore, Orlando Gibbons's "Hosanna to the Son of David", rang to the heavens in pure jubilation. This group don't go in for the theatrics of some of their competitors, but their wonderfully sustained and full-blooded sound has a narcotic effect, slowing even the listener's heart-rate to a healthy level. (Michael Church)
28.11.12 Positive Feedback from Positive Feedback
Many of the favored intellectuals of our day (the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, et al) urge us to live without myth, the Christian, Hebrew, and Muslim in particular. Of course what they are really after are the powerful and influential religions and institutions these myths foster; but the myths themselves have taken a lot of collateral damage. Living entirely without the rich and value laden narratives and pageantry of myths can be seen as intellectually honorable; but many of us find this a choice which misunderstands and so undervalues the power of myths to give rich, concrete, and comprehensive form to the elusive vagueness of our human hopes, ideals, fears, doubts, and moral values. Stripped of these forms and all of their life-giving art and music, life can be a pretty bare and ultimately inhuman affair. Alas, Puritanism comes in many guises.
Which, as is usual in this space, is a long and teacherly introduction to a review. This is an album of renaissance choral music concerned with the passion and resurrection of Jesus by a group of musicians who have become among the very best at what they do: keeping the Christian myth and its major voices alive. Cornysh, Orlando Gibbons, Tallis, Lassus, Morales, Victoria, Taverner, Byrd are all here, along with some less well known others, configuring with words and sound Christianity's imaginative shaping and interpretation of human experience and its proper destiny.
Spanish composers seem to raise their game when it comes to Lenten and Easter music and there are three wonderful works by Morales, Victoria and Guerrero on the recording. The achingly long lines of Morales' O Crux ave are beautifully shaped, but that super intense payoff at the motet’s conclusion comes up a scratch short. Victoria's O vos omnes with its El Greco-shaded dissonances comes off a bit too prettily too, but there's such precision in the singing that you can't help but be swept up in the performance. The Guerrero Easter motet Maria Magdalene is a gloriously joyous performance that rivals the great recordings of the Tallis Scholars and Cardinall's Musick.
The Tallis Scholars have sung most of this music before... and continue to do so. We would not wish to be without them. But Stile Antico have come along to show us this music can live in different ways. As I've written before about this ensemble, their 'style' is characterized by directness and seamless warmth, enabling the full humanity of this transcendent music to come out. What always strikes me about this music in either this or the Tallis Scholars' more ethereal approach is, as with all myth, how far it is from the basic raw narrative material that gave rise to it. We are in the world but we are also extraordinarily elsewhere. Inside it, above it, beyond it. Reality has more dimension. Even the prose (and poetry) of the King James version of the Christian bible, a great deal of which provides the texts for this music, feels greatly removed from the same original narrative material, reminding us how ill-conceived, if interesting, the 'search for the original Jesus' and other such research ventures are. Deconstructing literature is ignorant enough; deconstructing myth is beyond absurdity. Both forms of analysis misunderstand the nature of art and myth and what they are for.
All of this music, wonderfully performed here, makes, especially to our modern ears unaccustomed to its mainly lost sonorities, a powerful case for its continuing value. And in the midst of this program, contemporary English composer (and keyboard musician) John McCabe contributes a new version of "Woefully Arrayed," the first piece in the program by Cornysh, setting some of these lost sonorities into a context of modern dissonances to express yet more poignantly myth's even greater distance from a world, ours, in which it has lost most of its power. (Bob Neill)
12.11.12 Ariama enjoys Passion and Resurrection
You certainly can't accuse Stile Antico or the Harmonia Mundi label of trying to cash in on the current Christmas music season, because Passion and Resurrection features music for Holy Week and Easter. Stile Antico sings English, Spanish and Flemish Renaissance music, as well as a contemporary work by John McCabe on this album.
William Cornysh's Woefully arrayed isn't a liturgical work but a work for private devotion. Cornysh's textures aren’t especially dense, but he uses dramatic affect and word painting with great power. Stile Antico's clearly articulated singing communicates the intensity of the text well and makes for a moving performance. I don’t think there's an ensemble singing English Renaissance music with as much conviction (they sound so "in" this music) and beauty as Stile Antico. Thankfully there are some gems by Tallis, Byrd, Taverner and Gibbons on the program. Two chestnuts, Taverner's Dum transisset and Gibbons' Hosanna to the son of David, are superbly sung with glowing color in the top line of the Taverner and a fine rhythmic pulse in the Gibbons.
Spanish composers seem to raise their game when it comes to Lenten and Easter music and there are three wonderful works by Morales, Victoria and Guerrero on the recording. The achingly long lines of Morales' O Crux ave are beautifully shaped, but that super intense payoff at the motet’s conclusion comes up a scratch short. Victoria's O vos omnes with its El Greco-shaded dissonances comes off a bit too prettily too, but there's such precision in the singing that you can't help but be swept up in the performance. The Guerrero Easter motet Maria Magdalene is a gloriously joyous performance that rivals the great recordings of the Tallis Scholars and Cardinall's Musick.
The surprise of the album is John McCabe's setting of John Skelton's text Woefully arrayed. McCabe colors the piece with plenty of 21st century touches, including pained dissonances and odd rhythms. Placed in the program as a bookend to Cornysh's setting of the same text, and serving as a climax to the Holy week music, McCabe's piece packs power but doesn't quite jell with what precedes or follows. Nonetheless, Stile Antico sing the daylights out of it and sparked my interest into hearing more from the composer.
This is an outstanding recording on every level. Faultlessly produced and engineered by the Harmonia Mundi team of Robina Young and Brad Michel, it's an album that consistently moves the heart and delights the ear, even during these weeks before Advent and Christmas. (Craig Zeichner)
3.11.12 'Passion and Resurrection' praised in the Independent
The run-up to Christmas seems hardly the most propitious time to release an Easter-themed anthology of choral music, but regardless, Passion & Resurrection is to be welcomed both for its skilled execution, and for clever programming incorporating the homely clarity of William Cornysh's Woefully Arrayed, intended for domestic rather than church performance, and the more complex English and European arrangements of John Taverner, Thomas Tallis and Tomas Luis de Victoria. Highlights include Stile Antico's soaring, cathedral-like harmonic layerings on Tallis's O Sacrum Convivium and the joyous, cascading repetitions of Orlando Gibbons' Hosanna to the Son of David". (Andy Gill)
31.10.12 Five stars from Audiophile Audition for P & R
If its one thing Harmonia mundi is good at, it’s signing terrific new choral groups to the stable. One only has to look at Anonymous 4 to see the beginnings of a phenomenal track record, and of course there are many others as well, almost too many to mention. Stile Antico is one of the latest, a top flight British group that has now completed its seventh recording for the company, each and every one prodding critics to incessant amounts of drool, and garnering all sorts of awards. The latest offering is special indeed, focusing on the entire western holy week, starting with Palm Sunday and ending up in the celebration of a very bright resurrection indeed.
The twelve composers on this recording hail from the English, Flemish, and Spanish Renaissance. All three countries are hardly absent from recordings of music from this period these days, and all three are representative of probably the best choral music that this period in history has to offer. In England the large number of composers was matched only by the large number of styles that seemed to appear as well. This should not be too much of a surprise as that country went through a hellish period of religious ping pong, with composers like William Byrd and (even more) Thomas Tallis having to adapt and manage all sorts of liturgical and theological constructs in order to survive, let alone thrive, which, amazingly, both did, Tallis weeding his way through four religiously disparate monarchs and producing the phenomenally beautiful O sacrum convivium, sung with great affection here.
On the continent we have more stylistic uniformity (primarily due to the fact that these composers got around more). But there are differences, and one only has to sample a few bars of Cristolbal de Morales’s O crux, ave or his student Francisco Guerrero’s Maria Magdalene to detect not only intensity, but a more smiling disposition when it comes to projecting the involved and complex variants of the holy week story. But with the Flemish composers we get more involved harmonic complexities and passion found in the guise of soaring, involved melodic lines and sudden dramatic shifts of harmony, like those found in Jean Lheritier’s Surrexit pastor bonus.
But this recital seems to have a piece rather than a composer at its heart: Woefully arrayed, a song as opposed to a church composition set by William Cornysh the younger (we think—his identity gets confused by a lot of historians who have yet to really clarify) whose music is devotional and much more simple than the rest of the pieces on this disc. However, it also opens the recital, and halfway through we are treated to an original composition by modern composer John McCabe. He alters the words somewhat, making the text neither fully modernist nor fully traditional, but as his music seems to require at the moment. His setting dwarfs that of Cornysh in terms of severity; the one questionable element here is that fact that McCabe’s work does invoke the proverbial “sore thumb” in terms of the whole of this recital—you know when you hit it and it’s not like anything else. But it also is precisely like everything else in many ways, and even the half note harmonies and floating lines transport us to the Flemish world more to any other with its seriousness of purpose and unrelenting focus on the musical marrow of the holy week services. In the end, it works, even though all logic tells us is really shouldn’t, and the piece is simply adorable.
The recorded sound, caught at All Hallows’ Church in London, is brilliantly splashy in the best sense of the word, the many strands floating above our heads in wonderful surround sound, fiercely explosive in the broad dynamic range and yet quietly introspective when the music calls for it. The performances are second to none, rivetingly presented with all the skill of master musicians who have been doing this for years—the miracle is that they are all young, and yet still are able to penetrate the essence of these wonderful works. Need I say more? (Steven Ritter)
25.10.12 Classics Today awards Passion and Ressurection 10/10
The program concept—settings of texts inspired by the events of Holy Week and Easter—makes sense, but even if we weren’t aware of the liturgical and textual connections among these sacred motets by some of the most illustrious composers of the Renaissance, as listeners we would be immensely satisfied with the first-rate performances and uniformly gorgeous music. You could pick any one of these 13 pieces and justifiably label it a masterpiece, even though some of them are not especially well-known or oft-recorded. Stile Antico, a young British ensemble of 12 or 14 or 15 singers (it changes according to the work at hand), represents the future of serious, unhyped, technically polished, stylistically attuned, and musically affecting choral performance.
If you’re a frequent listener to Renaissance choral music, you have heard Victoria’s O vos omnes—but it’s unlikely that you’ve heard it sung so movingly, the very smallest phrases carefully shaped to capture the music’s textual meaning and emotional effect. The same is true of Tallis’ oft-performed O sacrum convivium and Guerrero’s correspondingly rare and remarkable motet Maria Magdalene. Equally rare—and musically compelling—is the opening work by William Cornysh, a substantial seven-and-a-half-minute setting of a 16th-century poem, Woefully arrayed, that showcases all of this choir’s sectional and ensemble strengths as well as introducing most of us to a memorable choral piece that, as far as I know, has only been recorded once before, by the Tallis Scholars. That performance, on a wonderful disc devoted entirely to Cornysh (itself an an act of supreme artistic conviction and courage against obvious commercial obstacles) employs single voices on each part, a viable alternative to this current version, only because the Tallis Scholars’ singers back in 1988 were without peer in this repertoire, and without technical flaw, whatever they sang.
Although the notes thankfully provide information about performing editions, we choir directors can only be disappointed to find that several of the program’s more enticing works are not commercially available—such gems as the opening Cornysh piece and the concluding Congratulamini mihi (Rejoice with me, all who love the Lord) by Flemish composer Thomas Crecquillon. This superbly crafted, resolutely joyous piece would be a hit on any serious choral music concert, if only it were published and available to interested choirs. (Incidentally, this same work appears on a 2006 Hyperion disc by the Brabant Ensemble, devoted entirely to Crecquillon; that earlier recording not only shares with Stile Antico the same performing edition of the motet, but also three of the female singers.) And speaking of hits, there’s no more worthy contender here than Flemish composer Jean Lhéritier’s Surrexit pastor bonus. This setting of the matins respond for Easter day, “the good shepherd has arisen…,” will not only be new to almost any of this disc’s listeners, but its captivating harmonic characteristics—not to mention its virtual celebration of the cross-relation—make this piece more than memorable, and eminently repeatable.
Perhaps not so eagerly repeatable is the program’s one contemporary work, John McCabe’s rendition of the “Woefully arrayed” text so compellingly set by William Cornysh in the disc’s opening number. Written for Stile Antico, McCabe’s setting exemplifies a certain trend in modern choral music, creating a sort of faux-atonal framework beset with hard-edged dissonance and rhythmic ambiguity that obscures the continuity of both music and poetry. It’s tough singing and consequently tough listening. Aside from this interesting if not entirely welcome diversion, this program and the first-rate performances should not be missed by anyone who loves Renaissance choral music. Stile Antico continues to honor the high standard set by its illustrious early-music predecessors, ensuring that its ongoing back-to-the-future projects will be both bright and beautiful. Highly recommended. (David Vernier)
20.4.12 'Tune thy Musicke' given ***** in the Irish Times
Tudor and Jacobean music for private devotion is the focus here, with the title provided by the poet and composer Thomas Campion. This 15-piece collection is another winner from the 12-voice ensemble Stile Antico. The performing style is beautifully judged, unlaboured in terms of emphasis, but full of incident. Rhetorical details, clashes of dissonance, scrunchy false relations are astutely observed and all make their mark without distortion or exaggeration. The two pieces by Thomas Tomkins, O praise the Lord and When David heard, epitomise the expressive richness of the style. But the simplicity of Campion’s Never weather-beaten sail is also gorgeous, and there’s an unexpected rocking figure, John Browne’s much earlier Jesu, mercy, how may this be?, that becomes a real earworm. The contributions of the viol consort Fretwork are equally fine. (Michael Dervan)
19.4.12 High praise in the Los Angeles Times
Stile Antico, an early-music vocal ensemble from England, made its Los Angeles debut on Wednesday for the Da Camera Society's Chamber Music in Historic Sites series at St. John's Episcopal Cathedral downtown. Offering a generous program of Renaissance masterpieces, along with a stunning 21st-century work by John McCabe, the group dramatically bridged the stile antico, or "old style," fashionable in Palestrina's day, with McCabe's modern style.
Though the phrase "old style" sounds disparaging to modern ears, the ensemble proved that though fashion goes out of style, an engaging style never goes out of fashion. Arranged in a semicircle, the six men and six women -- (incidentally, three of the singers are sisters, two of them twins) -- sang pieces from 15 composers with minimum vibrato and a consistently captivating vocal blend. The variety of tone and dynamics was also remarkable, given that Stile Antico work without a conductor. The young ensemble got an early career boost by touring with Sting for his 'Songs From the Labyrinth' album. This is Stile Antico's fourth American tour in 18 months, and it has a gorgeously produced Harmonia Mundi CD just out, 'Tune Thy Musicke to Thy Hart.' The disc, an intimate, otherworldly collection of Tudor and Jacobean sacred music written for domestic devotion, features an unusual touch for this a cappella group: On several tracks, the singers are accompanied by the viol consort Fretwork.
Tenor Andrew Griffiths, acting as the group's spokesman, charmingly called Wednesday's program 'a whistle-stop tour of Renaissance polyphony.' With the mood enhanced by a slight haze of incense burning in the cathedral, the soaring beauty of Stile Antico's sound was immediately apparent in Nicolas Gombert’s 'Magnificat Primi Toni.' In William Byrd’s 'Laetentur Coeli' and Thomas Tallis' 'O Sacrum convivium,' the singer’s voices bloomed, while maintaining an exquisite balance.
The concert's centerpiece, McCabe's 'Woefully Arrayed,' commissioned for Stile Antico and given its premiere by the group in 2009, is based on an anonymous text set by the 16th-century composer William Cornysh. In evoking Christ’s Passion, Stile Antico conjured powerful vocal contrasts amid the score’s shifting textures, strange dissonances and rich harmonies.
After intermission, the singers gave an exciting rendition of Thomas Tomkins' 'O Praise the Lord,' listening closely to each other in rendering its intricate counterpoint and antiphonal effects. Also dazzling: 'Veni, Dilecte Mi' by Spanish composer Sebastián de Vivanco, and Hieronymus Praetorius' 'Tota Pulchra Es,' in which the singers divided into three choirs of four.
For an encore, Stile Antico offered the simple harmonies of Thomas Campion's 'Never Weather-beaten Sail.' (Rick Schultz)
15.4.12 The St Louis Post-Dispatch on Stile Antico's local debut
The real test of musicians whose work you've loved on recordings is whether they sound as good in person. Some do; some don't; some lip-synch. On Friday night, presented by Cathedral Concerts, Stile Antico passed that test with a perfectly exquisite performance.
The conductorless 12-voice a cappella British choral ensemble — six women, six men — arranged themselves in a semi-circle in mixed quartets for most of their program. One particular pleasure of hearing them perform live is the experience of watching them at work. The essence of good choral singing is to pay attention to what one's colleagues are doing and adjust to blend with them. Stile Antico's members watch and listen to each other, communicating nonverbally to constantly tweak the sound and tempos.
The supremely resonant acoustic of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis made them take some of those tempos at a more stately pace than in a smaller hall, but the energy level remained high, and the music never felt slow. The biggest issue, in fact, lay with the audience, so enthusiastic that the last notes were never allowed to die away before the applause began.
Stile Antico's specialty is music of the Renaissance and the intertwining vocal lines of polyphony. Their program, "Treasures of the Renaissance: Masterpieces from the golden age of choral music," offered a fine sampling of the era's possibilities in different styles and moods, some somber, some lively. Most of the texts were biblical. That, however, included several passages from the decidedly secular, frequently erotic Song of Songs, in musical settings both chaste and suggestive.
The exception to the early music rule was a work composed for Stile Antico, "Woefully arrayed," by British composer John McCabe (b. 1939). A setting of an anonymous 14th-century Good Friday text, it was perfectly designed for the ensemble's vocal and musical talents, and added a touch of contemporary edge to the evening.
In a near-perfect program like this one, it's hard to pick out highlights; the music was all gorgeous. (Some fatigue evidenced itself near the end with a couple of imperfect entrances.) They saved one of the best pieces for last, Tomás Luis de Victoria's setting of "O Magnum Mysterium," exquisitely sung.
In a near-perfect ensemble like this one, it's hard to pick out particular singers for notice. The sad fact for altos, tenors and basses, however, is that however well they sing — and these are wonderful — if the sopranos aren't good, the lower voices are likely to go unnoticed. The sopranos — twins Helen and Kate Ashby and Rebecca Hickey — are incredibly good. Here's hoping that Cathedral Concerts will bring them all back. (Sarah Bryan Millar)
14.4.12 'Tune thy Musicke' is a Gramophone Editor's Choice
We are enjoined by this fine recital to bring nuance to distinctions between sacred and secular, and what we sometimes sloppily assume to be public and private modes of musical expression in 16th-century England. The very concept of 'private musical devotion' we might melodramtically associate with priest-holes, and Byrd's Mass for Four Voices in a wardrobe. Some wardrobe it would have been to accommodate the 12 exultant voices of Tomkins's O praise the Lord, which is one instance of several on the album where the conceit is stretched thin: just because the piece survives in a private (as opposed to ecclesiastical) collection doesn't mean that is its natural home. What's more important is that Stile Antico's sleek tuning and supple attention to words, and the studio recording, intimate but not claustrophobic, do bring a carefully plotted span (over 120 years) of sacred styles into our listening rooms with rare success.
The 12 singers don't go all out for the full-blooded staging of madrigalian word-painting that we'd hear from The Cardinall's Musick, and they use less vibrato than some long-established groups, but they no less effectively build the structures of verse anthems by Gibbons and Amner. The latter's A stranger here is a remarkable discovery for me, with its culminating, dissonant Amen. Amid such rich Jacobean harmonies, the restrained precision of Browne's carol Jesu, mercy effects a welcome shock to the listening ear. Melancholy introspection is banished at length by Gibbons's embrace of the entire Incarnation, sung not with the haloed eloquence of the Clerkes of Oxenford, but rather the keen interplay of Red Byrd, only without the artfully local pronunciation. To have fretwork on hand is a further boon. (Peter Quantrill).
5.4.12 The Church Times enjoyed Stile Antico in Warwick
STILE ANTICO is a 12-strong vocal consort who have drawn plaudits wherever they go, for their purity of tone and the wide-ranging early and late Renaissance music, from all European traditions, which they have made their own.
It is no surprise that they should be favourites in Warwick, where, under the aegis of Leamington Music, Richard Phillips has established one of the best-organised music series in the country, specialising in early and chamber music, but catering for a wide range of interests in events based at the Leamington Pump Rooms and St Mary's, Warwick.
As the youthful but musically mature Stile Antico have discovered, the audiences in the packed nave are as intelligently clued up and silently attentive as they are regular and reliable. They look for the best; and, by and large, that is what they get. The ensemble is essentially un-conducted. A head may nod here, or a shoulder twitch there, as one or other acts as guide; but there is no Stephen Layton or Harry Christophers to point the way. I thought a crescendo or a hint of rubato might come un-stuck or simply not be there; but I have no such criticism; witness the thrilling diminuendo to "Sicut lilium inter spinas", amid the serenely sung Ego flos campi by the Imperial Court composer Jakob Clemens non Papa (written for the Marian brotherhood at 's-Hertogenbosch), superbly phrased and reaching a perfectly studied conclusion here; or the beautiful aggregation of sound rounding off the first part of Byrd's Laetentur coeli.
There were several rarities: the surprisingly full-sounding four-part harmonies of Hortus conclusus by the Andalusian Rodrigo de Ceballos; or Vent, dilecte mi by Sebastián de Vivanco — one of several evocative settings here from the Song of Songs (too loud here, surely, for the delicacy of the text). By contrast, the choir specialises, much of the time, in a restraint that seeks to allow the music to speak for itself. Palestrina's Exultate Deo — full of character, excitement, and lush colours — showed just what this group can achieve when it really lets go. But Nicolas Gombert’s Magnificat at the opening seemed too demure, almost colourless; Victoria's O magnum mysterium — his most fabulous showpiece — was pallid.
But one should not cavil. The plum in this generally fine concert was the choir's three-year-old com-mission (for the Three Choirs) from John McCabe, "Woefully array'd" - a treatment, elaboration of, or response to an evocation of the crucifixion by William Cornyshe, Henry VIII's Master of the Children (Choristers) of the Chapel Royal in 1509-23, who incidentally supervised the music for Henry's French summit at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. McCabe (b. 1939) is a master composer in every sphere. A superbly graphic treatment of the anonymous medieval text, which calls to mind Arthur Bliss's fine choral settings (notably the late Shield of Faith), "Woefully array'd" spans the mysterious, the madrigalian, the contrite, and the plain gorgeous. McCabe's contrapuntal and keyboard mastery, painstakingly good judgement, and sensitive ear for detail in even a small-scale anthem should have cathedral organists across the country scurrying to him for new pieces. He could yet prove the Howells of his generation, and of our day.
1.4.12 Listen Magazine reviews Tune thy Musicke
The British vocal ensemble Stile Antico is young in age and accordingly fresh in its approach to programming, a trend exemplified in this latest release of works from sixteenth- and seventeenth- century England. Here the group focuses on the lesser-known but fertile repertoire of sacred music whose purpose was "private or domestic devotion" - that is, for types of worship outside the formal church setting. While the composers' names are certainly familiar, the music tends to be texturally simpler and more straightforward than we usually hear in their finest church works.
Certainly "simpler" should not be taken for less interesting, involving or exciting. Listen to Tomkins' "0 praise the Lord" or John Amner's verse anthem "0 ye little flock" or Orlando Gibbons' own verse anthem "See, see, the Word is incarnate" and try to remain unmoved by their sheer beauty and fullness of expression. Exceptions to simple can be found in the melodic turns and dramatic devices ofJohn Browne's remarkable carol "Jesu, mercy, how may this be?" or in the striking harmonic richness of Robert Ramsey's "How are the mighty fall'n" and in Amner's "A stranger here:' And there's no more perfect depiction of words in music than Thomas Tomkins' unsurpassed setting of "When David heard:'
As an ensemble, the conductorless twelve-member Stile Antico prefers a sound that celebrates the fact that it's made of individual voices, and thus allows us to hear inside the group - an approach that quite possibly more closely represents the kind of sound that the sixteenth-century singers would have produced in their homes and private chapels.The participation of the superb viol consort Fretwork on six of the fifteen tracks enhances the program's musical authenticity and adds yet another layer of vibrant color. (David Vernier)
20.3.12 BBC Music Magazine on Tune thy Musicke
The singers of Stile Antico are no strangers to English sacred music having produced some award-winning recordings usually centred on one or two composers of this repertory. Here, though, they have done things a little differently. This anthology gathers together not music for the official institutions of worship, but sacred pieces sung in private, or used for personal moments of grief, or which appear only in secular manuscripts. The result is a varied treasure trove of seldom heard but extremely affecting music, nicely sung and spliced together with some darkly-glittering string In nomines played by Fretwork.
The great surprise (at least to me) of the disc was the music of John Amner (1579-1641), a rarely recorded composer from Ely. His devotional madrigal A Stranger Here is breathtaking in its accomplished use of dissonance which the choir manages with some poise and fine tuning. Also his verse anthem O Ye Little Flock narrates the Christmas story delightfully, but in these works the choir could have made more of the theatrical aspects of the drama. They are, however, more compelling in their presentation of the mesmerising chords of Campion's Never Weather Beaten Sail and easily persuade us there is such a thing as beautiful simplicity. The only work which really challenges the singers to enter into dialogue with each other is Browne's Jesu, Mercy. This reveals some fine individual vocalists and the spatial effects evoke the best from the rather good SACD recorded sound. (Anthony Pryer)
22.2.12 Ariama.com full of praise for Tune thy Musicke
Some of the most intense and deeply felt sacred music of 16th century England wasn’t sung in the cathedral, but in domestic worship in private homes. The ascendency of the English Reformation proved dangerous and, at times, fatal for religious dissenters. Catholics and high church Anglicans were forced into private worship at home and the music heard on Tune thy musicke to thy Hart, the new album by Stile Antico and Fretwork, focuses on this 'secular' (non-church) religious music by Thomas Tomkins, Thomas Campion, William Byrd, Thomas Tallis, Orlando Gibbons and others.
This is sparer music than would have been heard in the cathedral, more direct in expression with simpler melodic lines. In some cases popular styles, like the madrigal and lute song, also find their way into the mix, and a number of the works appear in both sacred and secular sources. That’s not to say that any of this music is necessarily 'easy' or simplistic. John Browne’s gorgeous carol Jesu, mercy, has a communicative immediacy that’s powerful, but Browne also paints words, shifts key and shuffles the deck in a way that’s anything but simple. The madrigal anthem 'O praise the Lord' by Tomkins is a showcase of 12-part polyphony loaded with antiphonal effects that certainly convinces us the musical literacy of “ordinary people” was pretty high in the 16th century.
Some of the biggest surprises on the album come from composers who are not exactly household names. John Amner (? – 1641) is represented by two pieces, a brilliant Christmas anthem 'O ye little flock'and 'A stranger here.' The Christmas anthem makes marvelous use of varied groups of soloists, most notably in the passage where a pair of voices depict angels 'crying to one another.' After hearing it, I couldn’t help but think of the Duo Seraphim from Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers. 'A stranger here' has forward-looking dissonances that might have made Gesualdo blink. Both are remarkable, so thus begins my search for more of Amner’s music.
For all the talk about directness of communication, mixing of genres and other musicological issues, you will be floored by the flat-out beauty of the music and performances. Campion’s piercingly poignant 'Never weather-beaten sail' is so sweetly sung that you’d have to have a heart of granite not to be moved. Stile Antico sing with warmth and polished vocal blend on every track. No surprises there, but what struck me most was the sheer beauty of their voices, something that sometimes might be overlooked when the group sings more densely packed polyphony and your attention is drawn to their technical precision.
Fretwork makes marvelous contributions to the program. They join the ensemble in Amner’s 'O ye little flock,' Byrd’s 'Why do I use my paper, ink and pen?' and Gibbons’ powerful 'See, see the Word is incarnate.' They also perform several 'In Nomine' settings by John Taverner and Robert Parsons. The 'In Nomine' is an instrumental work based on the section in the Benedictus of Taverner’s Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas. As always, Fretwork’s dark chocolaty tone seduces.
There are few ensembles currently on the scene who have stirred up as much excitement as Stile Antico. In the rarified world of Renaissance sacred music you’d have to go back to the heyday of the Tallis Scholars to find a group who dominate so completely. But the measure of Stile Antico’s success is that they generate a buzz outside the sometimes insular world of early music. Nobody sings this music better than Stile Antico and anyone who has even a passing interest in vocal music should get this and their other albums. Tune thy Musicke to thy Hart is an early front runner for best of the year and my favorite Stile Antico album. (Craig Zeichner)
19.2.12 San Francisco Chronicle on 'Tune thy Musicke'
Alongside the more grandiose music composed for court and cathedral, 16th century England was a fertile ground for the creation of music for private worship services. This richly appealing new release by the excellent vocal ensemble Stile Antico - abetted here and there by the viol consort Fretwork - offers a tour through the range of this tradition. And what's immediately striking, aside from the sheer beauty and fastidiousness of the music, is the stylistic range that's encompassed here. Some of the pieces have a clear link with the sacred polyphony of the European continent, others to the secular madrigal, and still others to the simple but deeply expressive lute song. A number of the composers represented here are B-listers, but the overall quality of the music is high, and there are wondrous surprises lurking throughout - the sudden appearance of triplet rhythms in John Browne's gorgeously direct "Jesu, mercy, how may this be?" or the aching dissonances of John Dowland's "I shame at my unworthiness." The catchiest and yet most sublimely spiritual selection here is Thomas Campion's "Never weather-beaten sail," which repays repeated listening. All of the music is sung with clarity and precision. (Joshua Kosman)
18.2.12 The Telegraph on 'Tune thy Musicke to thy Hart'
The vocal ensemble Stile Antico, joined by the period instruments of Fretwork, here explores a range of music that would have been used for private devotion in both Protestant and recusant Catholic homes during the 16th century. Most of the composers - among them Tomkins, Taverner, Tallis, Parsons, Dowland, Byrd and Gibbons - are widely known, but the performances are wonderfully fresh, revelling in the harmonic false relations and affectively attentive to the import of the words. (Geoffrey Norris)
12.2.12 'Tune thy Musicke' praised in the Sunday Times
A plethora of riches, all tellingly performed by voices, viols or both, with appositely domestic intimacy. Among the giant names — Gibbons, Tallis, Taverner, Byrd, Dowland — are one or two less familiar composers, such as Robert Ramsey. His How are the mighty fall’n turns out to be an extraordinarily powerful work, comparable in its effect to Tomkins’s great anthem When David Heard. The beautifully blended voices of Stile Antico give this music with all the intensity that its emotional content merits. But then every work here fairly burns itself on the heart. (Stephen Pettitt)/p>
29.1.12 The Observer on Stile Antico's latest recording
We are, perhaps, in a wood-panelled Elizabethan hall, where in the early 17th century the family of a large house gather for their private prayer. Voices and viols mix in harmony, ranging from the familiar simplicity of Thomas Campion's "Never weather-beaten sail" to the elaborate verse anthem by Orlando Gibbons's "See, see the word is incarnate", the whole story of salvation condensed into six superb minutes. Tallis, Tomkins and Byrd are here, but the revelation is the little-known John Amner, whose "A stranger here" reaches a climax of rare dissonant intensity, powerfully sung. Another triumph for the superb Stile Antico ensemble and Fretwork. (Nicholas Kenyon)
20.12.11 The New York Times reviews Stile Antico
The British early-music choir Stile Antico has spent the last couple of weeks touring with 'Puer natus est,' a program devoted to Tudor and Jacobean Advent and Christmas music that it has also released on a Harmonia Mundi CD. The 13 singers brought these works to the Music Before 1800 series at Corpus Christi Church on Sunday afternoon, where they ended their tour with an appealingly warm, fresh performance.
As students of history will recall, the Tudors were of two minds about religion, and by extension, fashions in sacred music. Henry VIII broke from Rome and established the Anglican Church, and his successor, Edward VI, maintained ties to it. Like Protestants elsewhere, the Anglicans preferred comparatively short, direct, often chordal — but not necessarily simple — sacred settings. But Edward's sister Mary was a devoted Roman Catholic, and during her brief reign, from 1553 to '58, she restored Catholicism, along with its more expansive, elaborate musical style. Elizabeth I re-established Anglicanism as the state religion, and her successor, James, maintained it.
A young a cappella choir like Stile Antico is bound to be drawn mainly to the opulent, polyphonic music from Mary’s reign, so it was not surprising that movements from Tallis's 'Missa Puer natus est' were the principal focus, with pieces from Byrd’s 'Gradualia' as a secondary theme. Byrd's settings have it both ways: composed for Catholic worship, and published in 1605, two years after Elizabeth’s death, they embrace both the ornamental Catholic style and Protestant concision.
The ensemble began with a plainchant, 'Veni Emmanuel,' performed by the choir's male and female singers in alternation first, and then together in a beautifully unified reading. But the real test of the group's mettle was in the large, polyphonic works. In the Tallis Gloria, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei, it produced a sound that was finely blended yet transparent enough to allow you to focus on individual lines.
That transparency was decisive. To modern ears this slow, reflective music often seems to be more about smoothly flowing harmonies and lush textures than about melody. But when you listen to the individual strands — not only in the Tallis, but also in White's 'Magnificat' and Sheppard's 'Verbum caro,' with their soaring soprano and supple bass lines — you hear a world of gracefully spun themes that sound as moving on their own as in context. (Allan Kozinn)
19.12.11 Boston Musical Intelligencer on Stile Antico
'Puer natus est' was the title of the British ensemble Stile Antico’s concert of Tudor Music for Christmas and Advent, heard Saturday evening, December 17th, in St. Paul Church, Cambridge, as part of the Boston Early Musical Festival's 2011-2012 season. The choir of beautifully blended voices consisted of six women and seven men, singing without a conductor and able to divide as needed into as many as seven parts.
Outside the 'Euro zone' although connected by many links to the continent, English music of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance developed many idiosyncratic, and endearing, style traits. Fullness of sound and a fondness for 'sweet' harmonies based on thirds and sixths as well as quirky false harmonic relations persisted even as the long, floating melodic lines of early Tudor polyphony gradually gave way to text-defining points of imitation, a continental import. Those of us lucky enough to have heard Blue Heron's stellar 'Christmas in Medieval England' the night before were treated first to a grand sweep through English sacred music from the thirteenth to the mid-fifteenth century, and then from the mid-sixteenth to the turn of the seventeenth century.
Life under the Tudor monarchs was complicated for composers of sacred music as they navigated the violent fluctuations in musical practice from Henry VIII's break with Rome and suppression of the monasteries to the stripping of the altars under Edward VI, Catholic restoration under Mary Tudor, and finally the establishment of the Anglican Church under Elizabeth I. Although the Catholic composers Thomas Tallis (ca. 1505-1585) and William Byrd (ca. 1540-1623) wrote music for Anglican as well as Catholic services, all the music we heard last night was composed for the Roman Catholic rite. The program opened, like Blue Heron's, with the singing of the familiar hymn for Advent, Veni, veni Emmanuel. Alternate hymn stanzas were sung by men and women placed in opposite transepts of the church, the last two stanzas harmonized in simple note-against-note organum that lent additional solemnity to the haunting plainchant melody.
Thomas Tallis served in the royal households of all four Tudor monarchs, composing service music in both Latin and English. The text of his six-voice motet Videte miraculum, a responsory for the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin on February 2nd, tells the story of the Virgin birth. Placed in the tenor as a cantus firmus in equal long notes, the plainchant melody is surrounded by five other voices in complex polyphony, whose linear thrust often results in uncompromising cross relations at cadences. Tallis's incomplete seven-voice Missa Puer natus es is based on the Christmas Introit, which we heard in its original plainchant form later in the program. Here Tallis employed an elaborate cantus firmus technique that harks back to Medieval numerology: the value of each note of the borrowed chant melody is based on the number assigned to its vowel in the original text. Only the Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei of the Mass survive. Tallis — and the Stile Antico singers — made the most of the implicit contrast between sections of the Gloria text, from the vigorous opening song of praise to the more reflective 'Qui tollis peccata mundi' and the triumphant 'Quoniam tu solus sanctus' with its closely-spaced imitations on the word 'altissimus.' In the Sanctus, the climactic moment came in the recurrent 'Osanna in excelsis' section, its static harmonies animated by complex contrapuntal interchange among the voices, a technique employed again in the “Dona nobis pacem” that concluded the Agnus Dei.
The movements of the Tallis Mass were interspersed with four settings of Propers (seasonal liturgical texts) by William Byrd for the Votive Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary during Advent. In his late years Byrd, a recusant, and his family joined a Catholic community in Essex. By 1605, when his first book of Gradualia (Propers for the major feasts of the church year) was published, he no longer tried to conceal either its authorship or its liturgical purpose. Intended for devotions in the private chapels of aristocratic recusants, these short four-voice motets are modest in scale yet full of text-inspired motives in skillfully handled imitative entries. Byrd's contemporary Robert White (ca. 1538-1574) served as Master of the Choristers at Ely and Chester cathedrals and then at Westminster Abbey. His Magnificat for six voices is set alternatim, that is, with plainchant and choral verses in alternation. This expansive work is notable for its long-breathed melodic lines and ingenious variety of contrapuntal textures, such as the pairing of upper-voice quartet and bass on 'Esurientes implevit bonis' and the duet for alto and bass that opens 'Sicut erat in principio.'
As the second half of the program opened, four female voices rang out from the rear gallery with the evocative text of Audi vocem de caelo by John Taverner (ca. 1490-1545), most of whose music was composed before the Reformation. Whether in the closely-spaced polyphony of the respond with its soaring contrapuntal lines, or in the plainchant verse, the women sounded for all the world like (ideal) boy choristers, their voices perfectly tuned, ringingly clear, and without vibrato. Most of the Latin sacred music by John Sheppard (ca. 1515-1559 or 1560) was composed during the reign of Mary Tudor. His six-voice responsory for Christmas Matins, Verbum caro factum est, with its extravagantly wide range and florid ornamental lines, brought a fitting conclusion to this magnificent program. By way of contrast, and in honor of the four-hundredth anniversary of his death, Tomás Luis de Victoria's four-voice Christmas motet was offered as an encore.
Stile Antico stands out for clarity of phrasing, precisely unified ensemble, and for sheer beauty of sound that is strong and clear but never sounds forced. Their program booklet featured complete texts and translations along with two pages of concise and informative notes by Matthew O'Donovan that were a model of how to write for informed but not necessarily specialist listeners — all presented in a clearly readable typeface. Members of the choir also stepped out occasionally to deliver further introductory remarks. Under the title Puer natus est, the program was issued on CD last year by Harmonia Mundi. But nothing can replace the pure pleasure of hearing this talented ensemble live in a beautiful space such as St. Paul Church. (Virginia Newes)
19.12.11 High praise from the Boston Globe
CAMBRIDGE - Near the end of the first half of Stile Antico's Saturday concert, alien sounds began to creep into St. Paul Church. A particularly noisy rock band was playing at the nearby Democracy Center, and the sound wafted in as the group was navigating a complex Magnificat setting by the 16th-century composer Robert White. (Police were summoned and the noise was soon extinguished; one wonders whether interrupting an evening of Tudor polyphony carries a particularly severe penalty.)
That the 13 singers managed to retain their concentration and stay focused on White's lavish score is testimony to the skills that have quickly made them one of the most admired vocal groups in early music. But it also underscores the way an evening of Renaissance music fashions its own world in beautiful seclusion.
All music does this, but particularly in vocal polyphony of this era, the church or concert hall expands into a universe, and everything else seems to recede. Stile Antico, with its beautifully polished sound, immaculate tuning, and intelligent approach to texts, achieves this result as well as any ensemble, and better than most.
The composers, though, were not so splendidly isolated. As one of the group's singers reminded the audience, much of the music heard on Saturday was haunted by the tug of war between Catholicism and Protestantism. Especially poignant in this regard were four pieces by William Byrd, Catholic music written under threat of persecution. Each was brief and luminous, perhaps reflecting the furtive life of an outlawed faith.
By contrast, works by Thomas Tallis had a luxurious expanse. A motet, "Videte miraculum", and selections from his Missa "Puer Natus Est" unfolded in resonant, widely spaced chords over static harmony. Everything seemed perfectly ordered; when dissonances came, they knocked a listener’s expectations sideways.
Here Stile Antico was at its best, marshaling color, texture, and pacing to give shape to music that can otherwise seem gorgeous and inert. The Agnus Dei of the Mass was one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard.
White's florid Magnificat, John Sheppard's solemn "Verbum caro" and some plainchant filled out the all-English program. An encore allowed the group to travel to Spain for Tomas Luis de Victoria's "O Magnum Mysterium" perhaps the closest thing this era has to a greatest hit.
15.12.11 Letter V enjoyed Stile Antico in Richmond, VA
When Oscar Wilde wrote that life imitates art, he coined a clever aphorism but demonstrated his ignorance of English history – specifically, religious history under the Tudor monarchs. Listening to the British vocal ensemble Stile Antico perform liturgical music of Thomas Tallis, William Byrd and their contemporaries, one could easily forget that Christianity in 16th-century Britain was a death struggle between Catholics and Protestants, accompanied by epithets, burnings, beheadings and general mayhem.
Stile Antico’s Advent-Christmas program, “Puer natus est” (“A son is born”), centered on Tallis’ unfinished Mass for seven parts by that name; sections of the Mass were interspersed with Byrd’s four propers for the fourth Sunday of Advent. This was audience-friendly, if not quite fair to Tallis. His Mass, introduced in 1554, was written in the plainchant-rooted “old” style, circumscribed in both pacing (adagio to andante and back) and expressive range (reverential and awed). An uninterrupted performance of the piece would have been sublime, but also might have sent listeners into a blissful stupor.
Byrd’s works, later in vintage and more musically concentrated and adventurous, added needed animation and variety. Robert White’s Magnificat and John Sheppard’s “Verbum caro,” which ended the two halves of the program, added still more harmonic adventure and playful joyousness to the proceedings.
Stile Antico sings in a style that is historically informed, yet not angelically denatured, as so many early music vocal groups tend to sound. This group’s 13 voices blend beautifully, but retain their individual characters – especially the bass voices, with their hint of grit – and audibly feed off one another’s energy and expressiveness. In this performance, the singers, singly and collectively, pushed the expressive limits of the Tallis Mass, treated Byrd’s vocal weavings with spontaneity, and positively reveled in the intricacies and surprising eccentricities of the White and Sheppard works. (Clarke Bustard)
15.12.11 Milwaukee Express captivated by Stile Antico
The art of collaboration between humans is a continuing life lesson. Sometimes when individuals come together, even with shared ideals, things can go south. Other times people work together in a happy and rich process, and remarkable results are possible. Such dynamics naturally are in play in any musical collaboration, and can be especially challenging when the ensemble is a democratic one, without a leader or star. In all styles, the musical past and present are littered with groups that could not continue because they could not get along.
I have no knowledge of the collaborative process involved with the young British vocal ensemble Stile Antico, a conductorless group of 13 women and men. The sold-out concert performed Saturday evening at the Cathedral of St. John showed that whatever they do to get there, Stile Antico creates arresting music. The coming together of individuals happens in the very best sense. Communication occurs constantly as the singers look at one another. Technical ensemble issues (beginning phrases together, ending together, and other such details) could not have been better.
Though Stile Antico has Anglican purity as its core, it does not stop there. After all, purity can become monotonous. The ensemble's sound evokes freedom of expression and richness of texture, with voices coming forth when the phrase invites it, a tangible representation of the group's democratic makeup.
This high-minded program of Advent and Christmas music featured movements of the unfinished mass Puer natus est by Thomas Tallis, complex music of intricate, extraordinary design. It was complemented by other British composers of the 16th century, including William Byrd, Robert White, John Taverner and John Sheppard. Beautifully phrased plainsong chants, a basis for most of the music heard, were sprinkled in the program. A favorite choral work of the season was offered as encore, Victoria's O magnum mysterium, the only non-British music heard.
Though it does not have one of the city's largest arts budgets, the Early Music Now series presents some of Milwaukee's most memorable concerts. This was one of them. The large audience listened as though captivated by a meditative spell. (Rick Walters)
12.12.11 Inside Milwaukee reviewed Stile Antico's concert
Of the four key ingredients of music – melody, harmony, rhythm and timbre – harmony reins supreme in the 16th-century choral work of Thomas Tallis. Famous for his intricate and often complex use of shifting, sustained chords he once wrote a motet for 40 different vocal parts – Tallis’ music doesn’t so much flow past you as descends on your ears like a sweet and radiant cloud.
It did just that Saturday night when the British choral ensemble, Stile Antico, brought Tallis’ seven-part Christmas mass to the Cathedral of St. John, along with other British choral music from Tallis’ era. The concert was part of Early Music Now's 25th Anniversary season.
Taking full advantage of the spacious and sonically rich environment, the group sang from several different spots in the church, including the very center, where they stood in a circle around a massive stone altar.This is only possible because the 12-member Stile Antico performs without a conductor. Instead, they assemble so that the group’s members can make eye-contact when necessary, and they move through the slow procession of the music in a gentle lock step, with an occasional authoritative nod to initiate a phrase or cut off a resonating chord.
It’s easy to think of this music – with its wide-open harmonics and slowly shifting colors – as a kind of trance music. But the writing of Tallis and others of his era is quite complex and harmonically fluid. Follow closely, and you’ll hear the kind of harmonic invention that lead right into the Baroque era, even if there are only occasional touches of counterpoint. But if it is something more than trance music, the singing of Stile Antico is still mesmerizing. A welcome anachronism amid the ambient noise of the 21st century, the music filled the sold-out cathedral with the soft, reflective spirit suited to the year’s end. (Paul Kosidowksi)
11.12.11 Great review from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Amid a full roster of local performances geared to fire one up for the holidays, Stile Antico appeared Saturday evening at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist with an introspective, cleansing program of sacred music from Tudor England. The British ensemble of 13 mixed voices was presented on the Early Music Now series, performing a sacred program built around Thomas Tallis' incomplete Christmas Mass, "Puer Natus Est." Interspersed into the Mass were pieces by Tallis' contemporaries William Byrd, Robert White, John Taverner and John Sheppard, along with a little plainchant.
The ensemble performs without conductor. They face one another, sometimes circling the Cathedral's central altar, sometimes standing in a horseshoe-shaped configuration and one standing in the aisle at the rear of the church. The singers breathe together, phrase together and execute pristine attacks and cutoffs in perfect sync, listening and watching one another in a collaborative communication that hinges on subtle facial expressions and head movements. They also use voices that exposed lines proved to be quite different in timbre and create an astonishingly homogeneous blend. The ensemble's sound is pure without being academic or brittle; vibrant without being overstated or overly romantic; and precise without being cautious.
Saturday's program found the singers creating a focused, unison plainchant sound, moving like a single voice. They set aside the idea of a singular sound for pieces such as White's "Magnificat," making fascinating colors with the unusual vocal parings with which White painted each verse.
Throughout the program, the singers used the extremely live acoustics of St. John's like an artist uses a canvas. Enunciating their Latin texts clearly, they allowed phrases time to rise and hang in the air before landing upon and relishing the perfectly tuned harmonies of the inevitable cadences. A few spoken program notes delivered from the "stage," augmenting those in the printed program, helped place several numbers in historical context. Asked to hold applause until intermission and the concert's end, the capacity-plus-extra-seating crowd did just that, giving the ensemble a remarkably still, resonant space in which to perform this transporting music. The singers answered the standing ovation that followed the program with an encore of Victoria's "O Magnum Mysterium," sung from the center of the cathedral. (Elaine Schmidt)
11.12.11 Third Coast Digest enjoyed Milwaukee concert
Stile Antico sang on the Early Music Now series Saturday evening and deepened my understanding of Renaissance polyphony. I love it when that happens. The 13 young British singers built their program around the Puer Natus Est Mass, which Thomas Tallis composed in 1542. Tallis followed Renaissance practice by making a Gregorian chant — in this case Puer Natus Est (A Boy Is Born) — the common thread for all the movements of his Christmas-season mass.
This mass, in seven-part counterpoint, is brainy stuff. Tallis followed the modal theory of his time, which governed voice-leading and constrained harmony. He made it a little tougher on himself by using numerology based on the Latin vowels in the source chant to determine rhythmic values of that chant as it threads its way through the mass. All Renaissance masses are like puzzles, as composers strove to weave imitative music into webs of inversion, retrograde, transposition, diminution, augmentation and so on, while dodging dissonances deemed unholy. Writing a mass with seven independent vocal lines is rather like designing the world’s most complex freeway interchange, under the requirement that it must be as beautiful as it is functional.
The Missa Puer Natus Est lacks the push and pull of dissonance and consonance that makes tonal music drive forward through time. This missa is tranquil — even static — by design. Renaissance polyphony lacks the expressive pathos of Baroque opera and the narrative building to climax of Classical and Romantic music. It is so brainy and complex that it becomes inscrutable. You can’t follow its logic, as you can with even the most complex Bach fugue, and that always left me a little frustrated. I knew all that smart stuff was in there, but I couldn’t grasp it intellectually, any more than I could grasp the permutations of a tone row as they zipped by in a Webern 12-tone piece.
Stile Antico, along with the congenial acoustic of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, showed me that my approach missed the point. The intellectualized compositional process yields a hypnotic, dream-state sort of listening experience. Its affect is more akin to Minimalism that to the polyphony of Bach. This music doesn’t go anywhere; in the proper acoustical environment, its glowing, ever-shifting sonic weave surrounds you. You enter into a state of heightened awareness in which musical analysis on the fly is irrelevant. Just let it be.
Stile Antico tuned and blended perfectly and sang with a pure tone just right for this music. The singers made it easy to enter into the music. To let it be. They interspersed Tallis’ mass movements with a couple of plainchants and shorter works, all with texts related to the Nativity, by William Byrd, Robert White, and John Sheppard. White’s (1538-1574) Magnificat stood out. This forward-looking composer shows a prescient interest in dissonance for expressiveness and shock value. It required a different listening strategy from the rest and a more pointed approach to singing by Stile Antico. The exception both proved the rule and helped us understand it. (Tom Strini)
5.12.11 The SunBreak on Stile Antico's Seattle debut
It’s frenetic, this time of year. We are all so busy, caught up in the whirlwind of finding gifts, planning or going to parties, baking and welcoming visitors, flying out, worrying about the budget, and coping simultaneously with everyday life. It’s almost too much. Taking time out to go to a concert of exquisite music written for the season between four and five hundred years ago may not sound eminently sensible, but it is. Large numbers of people did so Saturday night, filling St. James Cathedral to hear the young British group of thirteen conductorless singers, Stile Antico, presented by the Early Music Guild. It felt like being suspended in an oasis for a couple of hours, and being reminded that this is not, at heart, merely a month of crass commercialism, but a religious celebration. For all, church or non-churchgoers, it started the season in an affirmation of its meaning.
The heart of the program was an incomplete Mass, Puer natus est, by Thomas Tallis, interspersed with other settings for Advent and Christmas by William Byrd, Robert White, John Taverner, and John Sheppard. From unison plainchant which ebbed and flowed like speech, to seven intricate, complex parts for the Tallis, Stile Antico sang unaccompanied with exact pitch and no vibrato so that chords were marvels of perfection. It was sometimes hard to hear words from the back of the cathedral, but often that was less important than hearing the interweaving of the polyphonic lines and the harmonies when they all came together.
All of the music was of praise, like the White Magnificat, and the Byrd Tollite portas (“Lift up your gates”), or prayerful, like the sublime Agnus Dei from the Tallis Mass. The plainchant, mostly sung by the men, sounded rich and purposeful; that by the women, just the Audivi vocem de caelo (“I heard a voice from heaven”) by Taverner, pure and soaring. There was much throughout that was extremely high for the sopranos, whose voices never flagged or lost pitch, but reached the rafters seemingly without effort. While many of the men might have had rigorous training as children in England’s firstclass choir schools, the women most likely didn’t in quite that way. However, unless you listened very carefully, it would be hard to say if it was woman or boy singing here. Perhaps there is an added energy to boys’ voices, as with their smaller bodies they have to sing out more, where women’s sound may be smoother, but no less clear.
It would be hard to hear any English cathedral choir singing this music any more beautifully that was done by Stile Antico.
23.11.11 The Daily Telegraph loved Stile Antico at the Wigmore
In the rarefied world of Renaissance choral music the new(ish) kid on the block is Stile Antico. They’re a group of twelve young singers whio perform the great treasury of unaccompanied vocal polyphony from the mid 15th to the early 17th centuries.
How this music should be performed is still an open question. For many listeners the serene, measured euphony of older groups like the Tallis Scholars is really the only way. With a name like “Stile Antico” - old style — you’d expect this group to do something similar, i.e. stick closely to the written notes and aim for a simple style, without adding lots of expressive nuances and tempo changes just to please modern taste.
As this thrilling concert proved, Stile Antico is anything but antique. Their sound has the urgency and freshness you get from young voices, and an amazing rhythmic vitality. The concert was a 400th anniversary tribute to the Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria, one of the giant figures in the final flowering of the Renaissance style in the late 16th century. Some of his beautifully wrought smaller pieces have been “hits” of the repertoire ever since they were written, and we heard a few of those, including O Magnum Mysterium. This was sung with luxurious slowness, beautifully sustained in all the voices — until the final Alleluia, when it broke into a gently swaying triple time.
Did any of this pay attention to the rule that speeds shouldn’t stray far from the speed of a man’s pulse, as the theorists of the time insisted? Probably not. But how well it suited the change of feeling in the words, from hushed wonder at the “great mystery” of Christ’s birth, to a song of praise. At the opposite end of the expressive spectrum were the jubilant pieces like the Ascendens Christus, where the rising figures portraying Christ’s ascension leaped over each other with thrilling vividness.
Stile Antico perform without a director, and one of the pleasures of the concert was witnessing twelve singers achieve perfect unanimity just through eye contact and the mysterious “feel” that really good chamber groups have. Sometimes the sound seemed over-bright, as if weighted too much towards the treble region; perhaps a lower pitch for some pieces would have helped. But this was the only jarring note in a concert that captured all the joy and grave dignity of this wonderful composer.
25.9.11 Seen and Heard on Stile Antico's Scottish debut
Celebrating the 400th anniversary of Tomas Luis de Victoria, the celebrated a cappella group Stile Antico (one of Harmonia Mundi’s headliners) proved once again that, with patience, sense can be made out of even the most seemingly obscure patchwork of 16th-century choral music. Parody masses, after all, require a kind of rare familiarity which only scholars can be expected to achieve. No wonder that the audience’s warm, enthusiastic applause occurred so spontaneously, if irregularly.
Fortunately, as you listen to music from so many centuries past, the differences between composers begin to become apparent, particularly Victoria’s precise control and stunning inner detail, and his ability to affirm through blocks of light and shade. The concluding Laetatus Sum, sung throughout in a clear, forthright style, had a radiant if sober glory that provided light for the cold night.
By contrast, Palestrina’s Surge Propera is a springtime lyric in all but name, more personal than Victoria yet adhering to a similarly pious theme. Morales’s Jubilate Deo also sets out a joyous musical vision, set to long-limbed Latin lines.
The well-known Janequin entertainment – with only four singers sounding at times as if they were 40 – is a different animal with its Technicolor narrative and sounds of battle. Stile Antico was triumphantly equal to the task, and found echoes of Henry VIII’s rough wooing (i.e., besieging) of Haddington, and even greater echoes of Henry V’s St. Crispen’s Day Speech (as imagined by Shakespeare) before the battle of Agincourt.
In a post-Reformation Church, once home to fire-breathing preacher John Knox, singing Catholic music may seem like heresy, but St. Mary’s Parish Church never blushed one bit. Located in the historic market town of Haddington, which it has served for more than 400 years, the oft-restored building is one of those tall, long and narrow ecclesiastical spaces along which words and music fall in like parishioners and focus like lasers.
Throughout the evening, it struck me that hearing Stile Antico live is the best way of understanding just how good Harmonia Mundi’s recordings are. The group’s stunning variety and smooth control of color, tone and nuance was remarkably similar to what is heard on their CDs. And after hearing (a week earlier) The King’s Singers use a pitch pipe in the gaudy exuberance of Poznan Cathedral, it was refreshing to hear the soft tones of one of the Stile Antico crew giving the correct starting notes for each piece to come.
26.8.11 Classical Source praises Stile Antico in Gloucester Cathedral
Setting a concert of polyphony from the golden age of Spain in Gloucester Cathedral was a touch of magic of which the wizards of Hogwarts would have been proud. Central to the programme which Stile Antico presented was the music of Tomás Luis de Victoria, not enough celebrated this year, the 400th-anniversary of his death. But part of the wizardry of this hour-long sequence was its construction, whereby movements from Victoria’s masses were interleaved with motets or chansons by other composers, passages from which Victoria had parodied, that is to say incorporated into his work, a practice commonplace in Renaissance time and having none of the negative connotations of plagiarism of later ages. It is inevitable that while some parodied passages are distinctive, their place in the new work audible and traceable, details of others are so quickly embedded into the new as to be much less easy to track, but the thread of connection is nevertheless palpable and gave an overall integrity to the performance.
It was the very considerable musical integrity of Stile Antico that made its members’ singing so satisfying. Their blend of sound was constantly varied according to the number of parts for which the texts were set, and indeed the number of separate choirs, with the placing of the singers helping to optimise the internal balance and overall clarity. In a way, the words of the opening motet by Victoria, O quam gloriosam, said it all: the essential purity of the performers’ sound – given added resonance in the wonderful acoustic – made for a simply glorious listening experience. After Morales’s motet Jubilate Deo had set in train the pattern of motet followed by a movement from a Victoria parody mass, it was Janequin’s chanson La guerre, which made the audience sit up. The composer’s evocation of the sounds of war were so cleverly realised, it was hard to believe that the piece was so old and that there was just four voices. The narrative was vivid and the pounding rhythmic energy came over as punchy as modern minimalism. When heard on its own, Victoria’s Missa pro victoria – wondrous as it is – risks seeming a piece where the composer had written it so as to pun his own name; here, the sense of battle between the voices, divided into two antiphonal choirs, came over strongly.
In Victoria, the pungent harmonic colour gives the music its particular vibrancy: Stile Antico was wonderfully attuned to those moments, so that the singers seemed at first to coalesce unassumingly and then explode with a little burst of passion, every vocalist listening and watching, reacting and responding each to the others. The result is totally compelling, with never a second when anything can be taken for granted, every note felt as acutely by the listener as it is by the singer. As it happens, this audience had been able to simultaneously feast its collective eyes on pictures by El Greco, projected onto a screen. The artist’s brilliant, almost modern-feel colours had a comparable vibrancy to the harmonic colour of Victoria. One small quibble: a row of fairy-lights was visible, looking ridiculous and detracting from the images and thus from this otherwise fascinating juxtaposition of two great masters. That said, in their final renditions, Stile Antico’s serenely radiant sound set the seal on a deeply satisfying recital.
4.4.11 Washington Post enjoys Stile Antico's 'stunning' debut
In this age of recording, when an increasing number of people's main experience of music is through earbuds, it is important to be reminded of the imperfections - thrilling if occasionally vexing - of live performance. This was true of the stunning concert by the young English choir Stile Antico on Saturday night, hosted in their Washington debut by the Folger Consort at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation on Capitol Hill.
The dry acoustic of this venue, with not enough stone to create a space for sound to hang in the air, was not ideal for a program of unaccompanied Renaissance polyphony. It exposed some deficiencies that can be remedied through multiple takes in the recording process, such as occasional non-unified attacks, minor tuning discrepancies or one early entrance. These did nothing to detract from the enjoyment of the group's crystalline sound, balanced and rarefied in many different configurations down to one-on-a-part arrangements, if slightly treble-heavy when all 12 singers were at full volume.
Polyphony and chants drawing from the rapturous love poetry of the biblical Song of Songs were taken from the ensemble's 2009 disc on the Harmonia Mundi label. While some selections were colorless in their tasteful restraint, others stood out for expressive highlights added by the singers, such as the slowing sigh at the words "quia amore langueo" in Guerrero's "Ego flos campi." Whether the text has erotic or spiritual meaning, heartbeats were set racing by the titillating crescendo on the words "ibi dabo tibi ubera mea" in Sebastian de Vivanco's "Veni, dilecte mi."
Due to the illness of one soprano, the scheduled concluding 12-part motet was replaced with the final piece from the CD, Tomas Luis de Victoria's luscious "Vidi speciosam," followed by an austere encore, the "Our Father" by John Sheppard. (Charles Downey)
21.12.10 LA Times includes Puer Natus Est in Christmas recommendations
Stile Antico - an ensemble of young British singers, pure of voice, their texture thick and sweet as pudding - here make Thomas Tallis' Christmas Mass and other examples of seasonal 16th century English choral glisten. (Mark Swed)
20.12.10 All Manner of Thing includes Media Vita in 2010 picks
John Sheppard (c.1515-1558) is one of the Tudor composers who tends to get overlooked, but the brilliant young British choir Stile Antico have done him proud with this disc devoted to his music. He was a gentleman of the Chapel Royal during the turbelent reigns of Edward VI and Mary I, and the music on this recording reflects this. On the one hand, we have relatively simple pieces sung in English, and, on the other, gorgeously ornate pieces in Latin.
As usual with this choir, the programme has been carefully put togetherhe centerpiece of the disc - right there in the middle - is Media vita, an enormously long setting of Compline antiphons for Holy Week, on themes of death. It is Sheppard's masterpiece, and has only been recorded a few times before (notably by the Tallis Scholars). Stile Antico's version goes to the top of the short list. Throughout they sing with sensitivity, balance, and beauty. A superb disc.
17.12.10 Time Out New York includes Puer Natus Est in Best of 2010
Even Scrooge would embrace this transporting survey of Tudor English Christmas music, sublimely sung by a young English choir whose every new release demands hearing. (Steve Smith)
12.12.10 Classic FM Magazine awards Puer Natus est *****
History's haze has obscured the original of Tallis's Mass Puer natus est nobis. It might have been performed by Mary Tudor's Chapel Royal during Christmas 1554 or written as a university degree exercise. Whatever the case, it stands as a masterwork of Tudor sacred music and supplies the backbone of Stile Antico's irresistible seasonal programme. Other treasures here include Robert White's expansive, virtuosic Magnificat and Sheppard's coruscatingly beautiful Verbum caro.
Conductorless Stile Antico may be, but they could never be accused of lacking direction of clear-sighted commitment to the works on this generously filled album. Individual members of the group, 14-strong in several pieces here, bear full responsibility for their work and for sticking limpet-like to the basic pulse and occasional fluctuations from it. The approach encourages long-range thinking about music, inviting the ear to contemplate soaring architecture rather than surface detail.
Repeated hearings have done nothing to shorten the depth or diminish the intensity of first impressions left by Stile Antico's work here. Puer natus est is for life, not just for Christmas! (Andrew Stewart)
6.12.10 Puer Natus Est praised in Audiophile Audition
The uniting strand on this new disc from the up and coming choral music ensemble Stile Antico is the remarkable Missa Puer natus est (a boy is born) by Thomas Tallis. The Gregorian plainchant melody Puer natus est nobis forms the basis for this incomplete work, it's seven-part scoring something to wonder at in any age.
The Christmas holidays were not originally imbued with the splendor and overwhelmingly sophisticated sense of high festival that they began to achieve in the early Renaissance; indeed it was Easter and it alone that occupied pride of place, and still does in the Christian cycle. But Christmas, at least in the western church, no doubt because of its popular themes and very earthy story of agrarian-like personages latched onto a populist theme that eventually found its way into the compositional precedents of the high church as well. Tallis himself gave this mass a large scope full of superb craft and intricate writing, allowing a splendor and grandiosity that indicates the importance of this festival in the late sixteenth century. The numerology involved and almost Webern-esque attention to every aspect of detail serve to give the work a depth and emotional force that exceeds most others even at a time when the latest techniques were intent on serving up just such a splendiferous aural and religious experience.
Stile Antico supplies the Propers to this mass with four works by William Byrd. The noted recusant had achieved a place in society that seemed to insulate himself and his family from any governmental inquiries into his activities. These are the texts proper to the season from the Gradualia of 1605, from the votive services to the Blessed Virgin during Advent. Byrd does not take the time that Tallis consumes, and is always (even in general) more concise in his musical language. Yet few composers are as adept at getting to the point of the text so quickly and elevating the listener to the required level of emotional pleasure.
The remainder of the program features Taverner, White, and Sheppard, each particular to the season, especially Sheppard's brilliant Verbum caro, a piece of unusual and thrilling harmonic changes and powerful eight-part choral ending. Stile Antico is rapidly moving into one of the premiere spots of the recent choral charts, and every release thus far has been highly significant. This Christmas offering stands out among similar releases in a very competitive field, and Harmonia mundi has captured them in wondrous surround sound fashion at All Hollows Church in London. A fabulous disc just in time for the holidays! (Steven Ritter)
5.12.10 St Louis Post-Dispatch includes Puer Natus Est in Christmas Picks
The absolute antithesis of the "Frosty the Snowman" genre, these exquisite Tudor masterpieces for the seasons of Advent and Christmas are brought to translucent life by the young British choral group Stile Antico. The music is by Thomas Tallis, John Taverner, William Byrd, Robert White and John Sheppard, with a plainchant thrown in for good measure. It's not conventional Christmas music by the standards of our day, but it's cleanly, clearly sung and utterly ravishing in its beauty. (Sarah Bryan Miller)
4.12.10 BBC Music gives five stars to Puer Natus Est
Tallis's incomplete Mass Puer natus est is the key item on this CD, a work of intricate grandeur weaving seven voice-parts in music of mesmerising beauty and wonder. Here's an exceptional performance by the young award-winning British ensemble Stile Antico, who work without a conductor and seem all the more sensitised and focused for it. Robert White's glowingly affirmative Magnificat is the single longest piece here, and again highlights the choir's outstanding technical aptitude and warmly expressive instints. (Terry Blain)
3.12.10 Opera News reviews Puer Natus Est
Here's a soundtrack for The Tudors at Christmastime: pipe it in when you're warming the wassail and hanging the mistletoe. Even though the singers in Stile Antico have performed with Sting on the road and have earned a couple of Grammy nominations, don't mistake them for rock stars. They're the real deal, exquisitely trained classical musicians who give seamless lines to the most challenging early music.
In this elegant recording, they're mostly concerned with Roman Catholic composer Thomas Tallis (1505-85) and his student William Byrd (1540?-1623) who were writing in a largely Protestant and increasingly Puritan England. Both composed for the crown and managed to keep their heads while pleasing different monarchs, in Tallis's case "fower sovereygnes reygnes (a thing not often seen)," as his burial plaque declared - Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I. The Protestants wanted a clear chordal structure and less polyphony, while the Roman Catholics allowed for more florid expression.
The Christmas mass "Puer natus est," the centerpiece of this recording, was written in 1554 for Mary Tudor, then recently wed to King Phillip II of Spain. Tallis indulged the occasion with the most lavish seven-part writing, as if the return of a Catholic monarch to the throne was cause for undiluted celebration. Stile Antico gets every nuance of the piece, from the tolling plainchant melody in the cantus firmus to the bell-like spin of melismas rising above. Their phrasing is so good it's almost hard to unthread in a piece of such rich fabric; one line may disappear, but it's always there, as in the reverse side of a Flemish tapestry.
Interwoven with the Tallis mass are four Byrd Propers, set to liturgical texts for Advent. These were written at a much later date, 1605, when recusant Catholics such as Byrd hoped for greater favor under James I, England's first Stuart king. No longer employed by the Chapel Royal, Byrd was composing for wealthy Catholic families who worshipped in their country homes with choirs of hired servants (and the occasional spy) singing his music. I can't imagine the music ever sounded as good as it does in Stile Antico's capable hands. The group is described as "an ensemble of young British singers," but youth can hardly account for their confidence, musicianship and flawless blend. I kept listening for a lone voice sticking out or an infelicitous harmony, but these fourteen singers sing as one - even when they're in seven parts.
This choral music was written at a period when a composer's choices could be dangerous - to his life itself, not just to his artistic reputation. It must have made Advent, the waiting for a prince of peace, all the more fervent. (Rick Hamlin)
26.11.10 New York Times includes Puer Natus Est in Best of Year
A large body of choral works from 16th-century Britain forms a particularly transcendent strand in the rich history of Western sacred music. Stile Antico brings delicious balance and otherworldly beauty to this recording of music by Tallis, Taverner, Byrd, White and Sheppard. Listening will restore meaning to the holidays amid the retail onslaught.
(Daniel J. Wakin)
20.11.10 The Arts Desk reviews Puer Natus est
"Puer natus est (A Boy is Born)" is the title of a one-minute plainchant which Thomas Tallis used as the basis of his Christmas mass, sadly incomplete. Three complete movements survive and are programmed in this exquisitely sung recital, interspersed with music by Tallis's contemporaries. Tallis wrote the work for a seven-part vocal ensemble, giving the textures an incomparable richness and warmth. This is about as far away from conventional seasonal fare as you can get, but it's mesmerising, with the voices of young choir Stile Antico immaculately tuned and bathed in a radiant church acoustic.
The Tallis pieces have a rhapsodic, improvisatory feel, and they contrast well with William Byrd's four works composed for Advent - each much more tightly structured and marvels of elegance and concision. John Taverner's "Audivi vocem de caelo" stands out for its narrow vocal range - sung here by women's voices alone. Your ears quickly become accustomed to the lack of bass, until you contrast it with Robert White's "Magnificat", with a low plainchant opening which thrillingly broadens out into six-part choral writing. Any discussion of these works' technical aspects runs the risk of making this recording sound academic and austere. Nothing could be further from the truth - this is exquisite music, performed with a sense of wondrous discovery, and perfect spiritual comfort for the troubled soul. (Graham Rickson)
18.11.10 Puer Natus est is MusicWeb Disc of the Month
The start of this disc is arresting. That may sound a strange thing to say, given the nature of the repertoire but I can-t think of a more appropriate word. After the plainsong intonation that begins Tallis's luminous Videte miraculum the polyphony starts gently, even delicately. The sheer beauty of the singing is a harbinger of what's to follow over the next seventy-eight minutes. The piece itself is quite wonderful and so is the performance. In his booklet note Matthew O'Donovan, one of the singers, says that this Tallis motet "effuses an extraordinary sense of rapt adoration, stillness and mystery; to hear it is to stand awestruck before a fine painting of the Virgin and Child." I cannot but agree yet it requires a performance of the quality of this present one to bring the music truly to life. For a Christian believer this rapt music surely illuminates the Mystery of the Incarnation; and the non-believer can appreciate it just as much as an expression of high art. In this very special performance everything seems just right: the chant sections are fluently delivered while the polyphony is superbly controlled. This is one of the most beautiful accounts of any piece of music that I've heard in years.
This disc is my first encounter with the British ensemble Stile Antico, though I have read appreciative comments about them in the press. Like the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra they don't have a conductor but the precision and unanimity of their singing on this disc would be envied by many a conductor. The core membership of the group consists of twelve singers although I think they were joined by a handful of guests on this occasion because fourteen singers are listed in the booklet. Incidentally, the three altos are all female. The group produces a lovely, even sound and throughout this disc tuning, ensemble and blend seemed impeccable to me. They also sing with great clarity - every line is crystal clear - and the balance between the voices and parts is superb - and this is all the more remarkable when you consider that they don't have a conductor to regulate the performances as they proceed. If I have a criticism it would be that the music making is a bit too even. It might be objected that the style is a little too calm and collected but the sheer beauty of sound does tend to disarm criticism.
The programme is built around Tallis's seven-part Christmas Mass, Puer natus est. The setting is incomplete and for this recording Stile Antico use a new edition and reconstruction of the score by Sally Dunkley. It's a marvellous setting. Much of the music is expansive and outgoing, as befits a mass setting for one of the great feasts of the Christian calendar. It was almost certainly composed during the reign of Queen Mary Tudor (1553-1558), that brief period that marked the last years of Catholic monarchy in England, and the music is full of confidence. The Gloria is given a splendidly assured performance by Stile Antico and I particularly admired the way in which each part is perfectly weighted against the others in the expressive 'Qui tollis peccata mundi' section. Later, at 'Quoniam tu solus', the music gathers momentum for the closing section and it's noteworthy that these singers increase the excitement without compromising the smooth, splendidly blended textures. The music of the Sanctus is impressive and finely modulated while the serene, prayerful Agnus Dei is brought off quite beautifully.
The sections of the Mass are interwoven with four appropriate pieces from Byrd's Gradualia. These are all prayers from the Proper of the Votive Mass for the Virgin Mary during Advent. Their inclusion in this programme is welcome on several counts. In the first place, the music itself is superb: each piece is a marvel of concision and expressiveness. Furthermore, each piece is placed within the Tallis setting at what would be the correct juncture in a liturgical celebration of the Mass. But for me one of the most interesting aspects of the inclusion of these pieces by Byrd is the contrast they afford with the Tallis mass. Some fifty years had passed between the composition of that mass setting and the compilation of the Gradualia and England had changed irrevocably. A Catholic country had become firmly Protestant and while Tallis had been able to write for a public celebration of the Mass these particular pieces by Byrd were designed for use by recusant Catholic congregations. So, though Tollite portas is a forthright offering, for the most part we find that a more intimate, less public tone is struck by Byrd. Thus the lovely Ave Maria is poised and devotional while the exquisite Ecce virgo concipiet communicates gentle wonder and awe. Stile Antico's performances of these four little gems are exceptionally fine.
Robert White's Magnificat is a wide-ranging and substantial piece. It's an alternatim setting and in the polyphonic passages White cleverly varies the scoring of each section so that while some are in as many as six parts he often uses much smaller forces. This means that the textures are constantly changing as the piece evolves. The performance by Stile Antico is assured and colourful.
Their recital began with a wonderful piece, superbly performed. Their account of Sheppard's Verbum caro ends the programme with comparable distinction. It's exquisite, full of a sense of calm joy and the performance is absolutely superb.
This is a wonderful disc. I enjoyed it from start to finish and marvelled at the quality of the performances. Other production values are as high as the quality of the music and the singing. The note by Matthew O'Donovan combines erudition and clarity and is very readable. His note is contained in a beautifully produced booklet, which contains some fine illustrations as well as clearly printed texts and translations. Finally, one's pleasure in the music-making is greatly enhanced by the excellent quality of the recorded sound. I listened to the disc as a conventional CD and thought the recording was most impressive but I'd love to hear it with the even greater definition of SACD.
I said earlier on that this was my first encounter with Stile Antico: I shall make sure it's not my last. I can only urge you to acquire this exceptionally fine disc and let the radiance of the music and the performances illuminate your Christmas. (John Quinn)
15.11.10 Puer Natus est reviewed on allmusic.com
The British vocal ensemble Stile Antico was established in 2001 and within its first decade has been acknowledged as one of the very finest early music groups, with multiple Grammy nominations, as well as Gramophone and Diapason d'or Awards. This album, Puer natus est: Tudor Music for Advent and Christmas, received a Diapason d'or Award in October 2010. One thing that sets this group apart from similar ensembles is the fact that it works without a conductor, making aesthetic decisions together and listening very, very closely to each for balance and tempos. It's possible to hear the singers' commitment to each other in their attentiveness to the subtlest nuances in dynamics and pacing. Their approach is ideal for this repertoire, English Renaissance polyphony, which demands intense concentration, absolutely secure intonation, and a carefully balanced blend to make its full impact. The centerpiece of the album is Thomas Tallis' incomplete Christmas mass, Missa Puer natus est, of which only three movements were written. The recording opens with Tallis' Advent motet, Videte miraculum, and includes four of William Byrd's settings of the Propers of the Mass, a Magnificat by Robert White, motets by John Tavener and John Sheppard, as well as the plainchant on which Tallis' mass is based. The mass movements are separated by the propers and motets, as would have been done in a liturgical setting. The gain in performance authenticity is tempered by the loss of continuity of hearing the mass as a complete unit. The flow of the selections is pleasant, but this ordering makes it hard to keep track of the unity of Tallis' work. Stile Antico sings with phenomenally pure tone. The women's voices have the chaste clarity associated with boys' voices, but deployed with a technical assurance and musical sensitivity beyond that of most boys. The sound of the ensemble is ravishing in its warmth and the evenness of its blend. The performances are expressive, but never idiosyncratically so; the singers have no interpretive agenda other than letting the composers' voices be heard as beautifully and authentically as possible. The sound of Harmonia Mundi's hybrid SACD is clear, absolutely clean, and suffused with warmth. (Stephen Eddins)
11.11.10 The Kentish Gazette reviews Stile Antico in Canterbury
Has there ever been such extraordinary music making and such sublime sounds as those heard in the Cathedral Crypt presented by the world-acclaimed Stile Antico? The young British ensemble of 13 unaccompanied voices worked without conductor, working as chamber musicians, achieving a perfect ensemble, and presenting a programme of Renaissance music centred on composers pondering the end of life and beyond. Complex polyphonic works by amongst others, Lassus, Schutz, Dufay, Byrd and Sheppard were interpolated with the purity of plainsong.
This was extraordinary beauty, matching both the simplicty and complexity
of the 12th century crypt. Here we were subject to music composed for
places such as this and it was heavenly.The vocal techniques of Stile Antico were equally remarkable, maintaining
perfect tuning through all pieces even when performing Sheppard's
Media Vita lasting 25 minutes. Long phrases were sung with focus and
poise, diction was immaculate, balance perfect, expression lucid.
It is a very long time since hearing such magical choral singing in
such a fitting setting. (Musicus)
5.11.10 Yorkshire Post enjoys Puer Natus Est
Stile Antico, probably the finest Early Music vocal chamber group this country has ever produced, have devised a disc of "Tudor Music for Advent and Christmas" including Tallis's magnificent seven-part Christmas Mass, Puer natus est. Their hallmark of sopranos that so bewitchingly drift on high, with the men forming the solid ground level, is ideal for this mix of music by Byrd, Taverner, White and Sheppard. They shape each piece with immaculate balance and refinement, a mood much helped by the recording engineers. (David Denton)
30.10.10 Puer Natus Est praised in The Times
A disc of sumptuous warmth and rapture from this wonderful British early music choir. The chosen Tudor church repertoire relates to Advent and Christmas, but it's really music for all time, all seasons. Tallis's incomplete Missa Puer natus est has the grandest sounds; Sheppard and White's pieces dazzle by extravagance, while Byrd's beguile with their sweet economy. Singing without a conductor, the choir's tuning and rapport are impeccable. Clap your hands too for the atmospheric acoustic, bathing it all in gold. (Geoff Brown)
24.10.10 Puer Natus Est praised in the San Francisco Chronicle
Stile Antico, the suave young British vocal ensemble whose CD of 16th century settings from the Song of Songs was one of the musical highlights of last year, has come through with another gem - and just in time for the Christmas season, if the folks on your shopping list have a taste for Renaissance polyphony. This disc of Tudor music for Advent and Christmas shows off the elegance and richness of the English style, in performances marked by tonal purity and translucent vocal textures. At the heart of the lineup is the "Missa Puer Natus Est," Thomas Tallis' elaborate and expansive Christmas Mass, whose movements serve as an anchor for the other offerings. Those include short works by William Byrd, notable for their melodic beauty and craft, as well as music by John Taverner, Robert White and John Sheppard; Tallis' intricate and eloquent motet "Videte miraculum" begins the disc in sumptuous fashion. (Joshua Kosman)
21.10.10 The Boston Musical Intelligencer on Stile Antico's Boston concert
First heard in Boston at the June 2009 Early Music Festival, the British ensemble Stile Antico returned for a concert at St. Paul Church, Cambridge, on Friday, October 15. Numbering a baker's dozen and including three sisters and a married couple, this extraordinarily cohesive chamber group sings without a conductor. Standing in a semicircle, they seemed to be singing as much to one another as to the audience, producing beautifully matched tone and intonation in the best English choir tradition. Friday's program of Swansongs and Memorials by the Renaissance Masters, although centered (with the exception of Nicolas Gombert's Magnificat) on themes of death and dying, ranged stylistically from a late-fifteenth-century work by Guillaume Dufay to the early Baroque by way of the English Tudor choral repertory. The polyphonic for varying numbers of voice parts were interspersed with selections of Gregorian chant from the Requiem Mass and elsewhere, performed with equal attention to coherent phrasing and precise intonation.
The program opened with a five-voice motet, Retire my soul, by William Byrd, a Catholic recusant who composed for both the Catholic and the Anglican liturgies. With restrained yet moving eloquence, the repetition of the last two lines - 'Write all these down in pale Death's reckoning tables / Thy days will seem but dreams, thy hopes but fables' - underlined the mournful theme of death closing in. In Dufay's Ave regina caelorum, the text of the antiphon to the Virgin alternates with the composer's personal prayer for the repose of his soul. Here the two upper parts floated in ornate and rhythmically intricate duet over the slower-moving tenor and bass, reaching a melodic and emotional high point with the introduction of poignant C-minor harmonies on the word 'Miserere.' The centerpiece of the program was certainly the twenty-three-minute-long Lenten antiphon Media vita by John Sheppard, who served in the Chapel Royal under Henry VIII and Mary Tudor. This was pre-Elizabethan sacred polyphony at its most magnificent, with sections for six voice parts topped by the high trebles for which English choirs were famous alternating with verses for fewer voices. From intricate counterpoint to dissonant cadential clashes, Stile Antico carried it all off with aplomb.
The highly varied second half of the program opened with the Magnificat by the prolific Flemish composer Gombert, a series of short motets on the even-numbered verses of the hymn alternating with plainsong verses. Gombert's thickly-textured four-voice counterpoint with its overlapping phrases and avoidance of cadential articulation contrasted with the transparent texture of Josquin des Prez's O bone et dulcissime Jesu, also for four voices. Imitative entries, often pairing high against low voices, or soprano and tenor against alto and bass, articulate major sections of the text, an adaptation of an 11th-century meditation. Josquin set the text as a commemoration of his patron, René d'Anjou, King of Sicily.
More than a hundred years later, Heinrich Schü's Musikalische Exequien were commissioned for the funeral of a Lutheran noble patron. Part of the funeral oration, the motet text 'Herr, wenn ich nur dich have' (Lord, if I have none other than you) is set for two four-voice ensembles SATB. With just one on a part, the singers were able to project the brief text with its declamatory rhythms more effectively than was possible in the more intricate polyphonic settings with their freely floating lines heard earlier in the program. Our tour of Renaissance soul music was completed with Alfonso Lobo's setting of a lament from the Book of Job, written in 1598 for the funeral of Philip II of Spain, and Orlande de Lassus's intensely moving final motet from his set of spiritual madrigals meditating on St. Peter's denial of Christ.
The enthusiastically cheering audience was rewarded with an encore from the ensemble's latest CD: Byrd's Ecce virgo concipiet (Behold, a Virgin shall conceive). (Virginia Newes)
18.10.10 The Boston Globe reviews Stile Antico's Boston appearance
CAMBRIDGE - The chorus Stile Antico has, in a remarkably short time, gone from being a rookie on the early-music scene to one of its MVPs. Made up of 13 astonishingly talented British singers, the group has injected a dose of emotional intensity into its performances of Renaissance polyphony, music often presented with a cool, distant beauty. Stile Antico made its US debut last year at the Boston Early Music Festival; on Friday, the festival led off its current concert series with a return visit. Judging from the large and attentive audience that filled St. Paul's Church for this remarkable concert, the secret about the ensemble is out.
Part of what makes Stile Antico so compelling is that the group works without a conductor, so a performance gives the sense of an intimate conversation among friends. On Friday, that conversation touched on profound matters: The program, 'In Paradisum,' focused on swan songs and memorials by Renaissance composers. Intimations of death were everywhere, whether in the transfixing sweetness of Byrd's 'Retire my soul,' the opener, or Dufay's more intricate 'Ave regina caelorum,' which he composed to be sung around his deathbed. Both were impeccably tuned and balanced, and the Dufay featured some unusual harmonic passages.
The long work on the program was John Sheppard''s monumental 'Media vita,' at around 25 minutes, one of the largest unbroken movements of a cappella singing produced in the Renaissance. It's difficult to imagine a better performance of this exhausting work; it was not only beautifully sung but perfectly structured, with careful attention to phrasing, bringing a listener from its hesitant opening to a spiritually ecstatic close.
The second half featured more diverse fare, from Josquin des Prez's 'O bone et dulcissime Jesu' to Alonso Lobo's haunting 'Versa est in luctum.' The ensemble's vocal blend, warm and rounded, occasionally shifted to allow the colors of individual voices to emerge.
Scütz's 'Herr, wenn ich nur Dich habe,' familiar as the second movement of his 'German Requiem,' was presented in an austere reading for eight voices that seemed to reach more deeply into the text's meaning than larger-scaled versions. Lassus's 'Vide homo,' which ended the program, cloaked stern admonitions in Jesus'' voice in some of the richest and most rhapsodic harmonies heard all evening.
A standing ovation elicited an encore: Byrd's Nativity-themed 'Ecce virgo concipiet' - a nice change of pace after an evening pervaded by death. (David Weiniger)
17.10.10 Puer Natus Est receives high praise in The Observer
Surely the pick of the new CDs for Christmas this year, this exquisitely performed and beautifully planned disc is another winner for Stile Antico, a young, versatile and conductor-less group. They bring together Tallis's incomplete but richly resonant mass Puer natus est with Byrd's much tighter, shorter Advent motets from The Gradualia, a satisfying contrast. Then they add Robert White's expansive Magnificat and Sheppard's glorious Verbum caro to finish. Sometimes there is an emphasis on sound at the expense of the words, but what a sound: perfectly blended, carefully balanced, its sonorities reaching back effortlessly to conjure up a vanished age of devotion.
17.10.10 Philadelphia Inquirer names Puer Natus Est as 'best yet'
Another great disc by the young British polyphony choir Stile Antico? Yes, but this one is a step above the previous recordings made in its few years of existence. The program of English Renaissance music by Tallis, Byrd, and White is first nature to most British choir singers, but this group brings a particular kind of authority, clearly tracking the individual linear ideas and giving them a sense of individual purpose. Though the music's outer contours are by no means distorted, inner voices have extra definition, in terms of both sound and articulation. And while the performances don't exactly explain the music, individual singers seem to have plumbed the depths of what it means. Next to this one, many recordings of similar reputation have a beautiful blankness, which has earned such music an unfair reputation for exquisite monotony. Once you start this disc, you can't tear yourself away. Footnote: The group is now on a U.S. tour.
(David Patrick Stearns)
7.10.10 Classical Voice of North carolina reviews Duke concert
Duke Chapel has an ideal ambience for music of the Renaissance. Its Gothic architecture, high arches, stained glass windows, carved woodwork and stone floors and walls transport the listener to a different time and place. What the structure does for the masterful polyphony of that era is both mystical and magical. Thus we full heartedly welcome a group like Stile Antico, a new young group from England that sings without a conductor and specializes in polyphonic music of the Renaissance and Early Baroque eras. Their concert tonight, sponsored by Duke Performances, consisted of works from their 2009 release Song of Songs consisting of motets based on the Old Testament collection of passionate and sometimes sensual love poems attributed to King Solomon. The fact that their CDs are released on the highly regarded Hamonia Mundi label says much about the excellence of their artistry and the promise of a prestigious future.
The first selection, 'Ego flos campi' (I am a flower of the field and a lily of the valley) by Jacob Clemens non Papa (the epithet 'non Papa' possibly added in jest to distinguish him from Pope Clemens VII who died before any of Clemens' music was published). It was apparent from the first few measures that this group was going to make maximum use of all the marvelous acoustical characteristics that Duke Chapel provides. The entrances were smooth and precise, the passing tone dissonances were like flowers opening their petals with pitches perfectly centered. The weaving of the themes like tapestry coming off the loom made the music equal to the sensuous and rapturous poetry. The ends of phrases were as precise as the attacks whether they were firm and full or as soft as a lark soaring off in the distance. I found myself listening with jaw dropping amazement and pleasure.
The program continued with the masterful 'Osculetur Me' (Let him kiss me) by Palestrina who wrote no less than twenty-nine settings from the Song of Songs. There followed another amazement of this program: plainchant antiphons and responsories spaced throughout the program. Three of the women sang these monophonic chants with such ideally matched vocality and perfect pitch and phrasing that it was virtually impossible to tell that three were singing and not just one. These chants were ethereal interludes that seemed to cleanse the palette and open the ears more fully for the extravagant polyphony that surrounded them.
Lassus' 'Veni in hortum meum' bore the charm of the madrigal style he mastered so elegantly. Gombert's 'Quam pulchra es' in a tight, male dominated, range was rich in deep and regal colors. After another bewitching plainchant we heard Guerrero's early setting of 'Ego flos campi,' scored for eight voices polychorally and providing an intense weaving and variety of vocal textures. The first half of the program closed with Victoria's outstanding 'Vadum et circuibo' displaying a wide range of harmonic realization and stunning expressive affect characteristic of the Spanish master.
After intermission Stile Antico sang 'Veni dilecte mi' by Lassus and two motet settings of 'Nigra sum' (I am black but beautiful) separated by one of those other worldly plainchants. The settings, by Palestrina and Jean Lhéritier were both transcendently beautiful, the second reflecting the haunting imitative style and rich harmonic weaving of Josquin des Prez.
There followed Rodrigo de Ceballos' impressive 'Hortus conclusus,' another plainchant, and Sebastián de Vivanco's 'Veni, dilecte,' published in 1610, one of the historically later pieces on the program. It makes use of contrasting slow and fast passages and other techniques foretelling the coming onset of the Baroque era. Guerrero's 'Trahe me post te,' one more plainchant and Hieronymus Praetorius' amazing 'Tota pulchra es' closed the program. The final piece, published in 1618, is scored for twelve voice parts arranged in three four-part choirs. Passages of closely woven counterpoint alternate with antiphonal homophonic writing giving the piece powerful descriptive mode and lush visualization of the text.
To describe the artistry and musical integrity of Stille Antico I have employed many superlatives, all I trust, well deserved and appropriate. Being a conductor-less group means that they all contribute their scholarship and sensibilities to the process of preparation and performance. One key singer is designated to signal attacks and releases and other cues in a variety of ways depending on the needs of each piece of music. Working together like this seems to breed enthusiasm and unanimity of purpose. It provided, on this pleasant early fall evening a truly glorious and enriching experience of some of the lavish treasures of the Renaissance. (Ken Hoover)
3.10.10 International Record Review names Puer natus est 'Outstanding'
This is the young Stile Antico's fifth disc and the fourth exploring the rich repertory of Catholic polyphony of sixteenth-century England. It is also their best recording yet. The programme is structured around Thomas Tallis's astonishingly complex and beautiful, albeit incomplete, seven-voice Missa 'Puer natus est' and four polyphonic settings from the Propers for the Votive Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary during Advent from William Byrd's Gradualia I. Approximately 50 years separate the Tallis from the Byrd and the two composers' styles thus contrast interestingly. The Mass was written during Catholicism's brief but brilliant restoration under Queen Mary and, being for public performance (but probably not for the combined forces of the Chapel Royal and Philip II of Spain's Capilla Flamenca in December 1554, as some have suggested), is unashamedly grand and splendid. The smaller scale of Byrd's four pieces reflects both the necessary secrecy of illegal English recusant worship under Elizabeth I and the stylistic change wrought on all English religious music by the Protestant leaders' demand for greater intelligibility of sung texts through less elaborate polyphony. Yet they, too, are masterpieces of subtle polyphonic writing.
Stile Antico's account of the Tallis Mass is masterful, displaying this small director-less choir's sure sense of this expansive work's architecture. Tuning and ensemble are perfect throughout, as are the group's control of dynamics and the balance between the upper and only sightly less prominent lower voices. Equally successful are the choir's by turns ringing and tender performances of the Byrd (particularly the very brief, gentle 'Ave Maria') and the other, stylistcally very different works in the programme, all alternatim settings: the older John Taverner's All Saints Day repsonsory Audivi vocem de caelo, whose narrow vocal compass suggests an intended performance by a quartet of trebles; the younger John Sheppard's typically exuberant, wide-ranging, harmoncally daring and structurally complex Verbum caro; and the even more junior Robert White's glorious, extremely tonally varied setting of the Magnificat. The cohesion of Stile Antico in its rendition of the Sheppard, whose eccentric melodic lines and harmonic turns make this a difficult work to perform, is truly impressive. Yet the most arresting work is the one opening the recital, Tallis's lengthy Videte miraculum, a sublime masterpiece whose gentle repeated rhythms and recurring motifs Stile Antico renders with just a hint of melancholy tinting its dominant mood of serene wonder at the mystery of the Incarnation.
As with Stile Antico's previous discs, the bass Matthew O'Donovan provides a description of each work's prinicpal musical features sensibly pitched at an audience without elevated musicological qualifications, which considerably enhances enjoyment of the programme. Also in conformity with Stile Antico's other recordings, this is a so-called 'hybrid' Super Audio Compact Disc: one of its two layers contains a conventional CD version of the recording and a second layer that can be read only by a player designed for SACD, containing both stereo and multi-channel high-definition versions. On my stereo SACD player, fine individual details of the choir's unanimously attractive voices are revealed that are inaudible (or 'invisible') when the disc is played on a conventional CD player. There is, as well, a more vivid sense of the placement of the singers and the space of the recording venue around them: All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak in London. For those who have not invested in an SACD player, the sound quality through a conventional CD player is still exemplary. In short, another triumph for Stile Antico and Harmonia Mundi. (Christopher Price).
1.10.10 Puer natus est receives the coveted Diapason d'or
Parisian music-lovers had the chance to encounter this programme last winter, in the great nave of the Couvent des Bernadins, packed to the rafters. The disc recorded soon after that concert contains the same repertoire, built around the extraordinary seven-voice Missa Puer natus est by Tallis, probably composed during the brief reign of Mary Tudor (1553-8), a period of respite for Catholicism in England. Only three of the five standard parts of the ordinary are preserved (whilst the Kyrie was seldom set to music in England, the Credo has clearly been lost). But even in this incomplete state, it stands as the most elaborate cyclic mass ever composed in England, not only in terms of its inspiration, ample proportions and the way it sounds, but also in its use of learned procedures - the duration of each note of the cantus firmus (the introit Puer natus est, sung in the tenor) is set according to its vowel (a=1 beat, e=2 beats, i=3 etc)!
Some musicologists, seeking to explain this combination of opulence and unusual complexity (even for the author of the famous 40-part Spem in alium), have linked it with the great ceremony receiving King Philip II of Spain at St Paul's Cathedral, London in December 1554, whilst others see in it the fruits of great study. These two hypotheses underline the extent to which this Christmas mass marries luxurious sound with intellectual brilliance.
Stile Antico, the new jewel of of English a cappella singing, allows us fully to savour this fascinating combination. Besides their qualities of precision and blend, which allow each line to glisten within the densest counterpoint, they have a flair for varying the mood and delineating the great waves which bring the music to life. The remainder of the programme draws on the highly contrasted styles of Taverner (Audivi vocem for poised, high voices), White (an expansive, virtuosic Magnificat), Sheppard (the radiant Verbum caro) and Byrd (four motets, exquisite in their concision). The guiding thread of Advent and Christmas, while revelling in the freedom and daring which characterise the diverse music of the Tudor era, ensures a strong aesthetic cohesion around the sense of mystery expressed in the music, immediately striking from Tallis' Videte miraculum which opens the disc. Amongst the maze of recordings of this repertoire, so beloved of English groups, one piece of advice: Audite miraculum - listen to this miracle. (David Fiala)
6.9.10 Early Music America reviews Media Vita
It's been more than 20 years since the Tallis Scholars recorded the dense, hypnotic antiphon Media vita by John Sheppard (c.1515-1558). It was a groundbreaking recording at the time. This disc by the young British group Stile Antico is no less so - in part because it is a sign that the torch has passed to a younger generation of singers.
Media Vita is the fourth CD from this amazing, Grammy-nominated group of six women and eight men. Their albums have been charting on Billboard, they toured with Sting as part of his John Dowland project, and they have won a host of prizes. They perform without a conductor and they reconstruct and prepare their own performing editions. Critics have been falling over themselves to praise Stile Antico's tone, blend, intensity, style, dynamics,, phrasing, insight, historical sense - just about everything that makes an early music vocal group great - and I willingly join that heap. In fact, this CD is extremely difficult to review because it is, well, perfect. Even the engineering is perfect - just the right amount of natural reverb and slow decay on the sound.
Media Vita, the antiphon, is Sheppard's 25-minute plea for a peaceful demise (it begins, "In the midst of live, we are in death"). It's an intense, wickedly difficult piece. The beginning, in particular, is so dense that is washes over you in waves, almost like a group of Tibetan monks chanting. As sung by Stile Antico, you are transported inside the music, swept up by its transcendence.
The CD also includes three English anthems, a setting of The Lord's Prayer, and a latin responsory (Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria virgo) and hymn (Te Deum). In each, Stile Antico cuts to the heart of the text and music, presenting both aspects perfectly sung, perfectly felt, perfect in every way. (Beth Adelman)
26.8.10 Classics Today reviews Puer natus est
The endless hot summer drags on, and the promise of Advent and Christmas, recalled by the mid-August arrival of this new recording from Stile Antico, is quite compelling. And so is the music, headlined by the magnificent, monumental, and incomplete Missa Puer natus est of Thomas Tallis. The Mass has been recorded before, most notably by The Tallis Scholars and The Sixteen, but apparently a new performing edition was prepared for this current disc by Sally Dunkley (who, with David Wulstan also was responsible for the Tallis Scholars version from 2001). Without copies of the scores in hand--or some very close comparative listening--it's difficult to discern what differences there may be, if any; however, any performance requires some reconstruction of voice parts, so it's possible, even likely, that Stile Antico's Tallis Mass is not identical part-for-part to the others.
Whatever the case regarding the details of the scores, there's no question as to interpretive differences. While The Tallis Scholars and similarly The Sixteen are more measured, more restrained in their use of dynamic changes, Stile Antico is not averse to a little more contrast from one section to another, or to a bit of reveling in a climactic point or concluding cadence--not a bad thing in music whose bolder, more audacious moments are too often underplayed. These aspects of the group's style can be easily appreciated in the Gloria--the shift to a more gentle, prayerful tone at the words "qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis...suscipe deprecationem nostram", and the truly glorious, electrifying explosion of harmonies at the end of the movement.
The Mass certainly is a compositional marvel--although its seven-part voicing ensures relatively dense textures, Tallis manages to weave the melodic fibers with incredible smoothness and grace for very long stretches while maintaining a vibrant harmonic rhythm, such that you sense an easy if powerful flow from beginning to end, which benefits from Stile Antico's strong voices and consistently tight ensemble.
Although the Tallis understandably gets top billing, for me Robert White's Magnificat is the highlight of the program--a masterpiece among a host of other contenders, including the selections by Byrd and of course John Sheppard's dauntingly impressive Verbum caro. My only complaint here is that, depending on the particular voicing, but especially in the Tallis, the recording positions the lowest bass voice just slightly too close, creating an imbalance that can be distracting. I remember 25 years ago when I first heard The Tallis Scholars and thought how lucky we early music fans were to have this group and its recordings and performances to look forward to; with continuing respect for Peter Phillips and his groundbreaking ensemble, I find those same thoughts returning with every new Stile Antico recording. Highly recommended. (David Vernier)
25.8.10 The Times reviews Stile Antico at the BBC Proms
Earlier, superior music-making ruled in the lunchtime Prom at Cadogan Hall.
The divine British vocal group Stile Antico sailed without hiccup (or conductor)
through Renaissance settings of texts from the biblical Song of Songs.
Breasts, pomegranates, apples, honey: the sensuous vocabulary vibrated with that
mellifluous vocal bliss only possible with long rehearsals, close listening and constant eye contact.
The repertoire, from Nicolas Gombert to Michael Praetorius, shifted between lip-smacking and the devout,
but Stile Antico's pitch, unanimity and beauty never wavered. (Geoff Brown)
24.8.10 ***** BBC Proms review in The Independent
Stile Antico are a group of Oxbridge graduates who started singing for fun, but then discovered they were serious about it: as Grammy-garlanded superstars, they are now showing how thrilling a cappella music by the Renaissance masters can be, and this concert was typically flawless. Their sound was wonderfully clean and vibrant, and their democratic decision not to have a conductor - to operate, in effect, as chamber musicians - was triumphantly vindicated: no conductor could have calibrated this ensemble performance more finely.
After the smoothly-sustained melodic lines of Clemens came some angular Palestrina, then a richly sonorous setting by Nicolas Gombert. Lassus's 'Veni, dilecte mi' - setting a part of the text which was sexual in the extreme - was followed by Victoria's magnificent 'I will arise and go about the city, I will seek him whom my soul loves...' Exquisite fragments of plainchant punctuated the longer pieces; the finale was a jubilant piece by Praetorius in which the choir subdivided into three smaller units. In short, this was a cappella heaven; on Saturday it will be broadcast on Radio 3. (Michael Church)
29.7.10 Uetersener Nachrichten reviews Schleswig-Holstein debut
Stile Antico, a vocal chamber ensemble already very well-known in the UK, delighted the audience with its twelve near-perfect voices in its Schleswig-Holstein debut at Rellingen Church. Anyone paying attention to the wider music scene has heard about them in Germany already. Stile Antico recently toured in Germany with the world-famous all-round musical talent and rock-star Sting who - for sure - grabs only the very best of musicians for his excursions into the Classical genre.
That this London-based choir is amongst the best was obvious in Rellingen at the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival. The perfection of every soprano, tenor, alto and bass is clearly heard in the complexity of the mostly religious songs that were written from about 1509 to 1625 by poets and composers like Thomas Tallis and John Dowland, still famous in England today.
Stile Antico has no conductor or leader; they communicate with each other only through eye contact. And with every member of the choir highly concentrated and committed, it works perfectly. Each has a convincing solo voice, but together they are outstanding, interpreting music which has almost been forgotten in a thoroughly modern way. The audience in the packed Rellingen church responded to this thrilling performance with jubilant applause. Stile Antico ought to be a regular fixture in the churches and festivals of Schleswig-Holstein. (Heinke Ballin)
18.6.10 The Classical Review reviews Media Vita
One of the more mysterious composers of the 16th century, in recent years the music of John Sheppard has been rather unfairly overlooked, particularly when compared to the rich pickings available for Tallis and Byrd. This disc adds to a slowly growing corpus of recordings of his work and offers a fascinating overview of his compositions, from vast, large-scale settings from the Office to shorter English anthems that have thus far received scant attention.
The larger, Latin works are truly extraordinary and of a scale that looks back to the Eton Choirbook. Stile Antico bases its disc on three of these: the uplifting responsory Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria virgo, a Te Deum, and - forming a substantial centrepiece for the disc - the antiphon Media vita. The latter is Sheppard's masterpiece, an exquisitely carved work that Stile Antico performs with considerable poise and gravitas. With subtly-honed dynamic control, the mixed-voice group manages to convey an over-arching sense of uniformity to the piece - no mean feat for such a long, sectional work. Stile's weighty tempi do nothing to shorten it; at 25:32, the work is a full four minutes longer than the Tallis Scholars' recording on Gimell and over six minutes longer than that of the Gabrieli Consort (DG).
It works, though. This isn't a performance to turn up to full volume and impress the neighbours with; Stile's account of Media vita is the most introverted to date - a lower pitch than some recordings adds lugubrious warmth in place of refreshing brightness, with intimacy replacing outward drama. Bearing this in mind, I would have occasionally liked a little more unreserved joyfulness in Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria virgo, for instance, though there were some lovely moments of clarity in the later sections that provide a breath of fresh air to the more substantial six-part counterpoint.
The English settings show Sheppard in a more restrained form, though rather less so than many of the English settings of Tallis and Byrd - you can almost hear him straining to escape from the boundaries of commonplace homophony at every opportunity. Particularly beautiful (and also beautifully sung) is The Lord's Prayer, in five parts, which should surely be performed more often than it is today. The three remaining anthems do not give Stile the chance to display its overarching sense of structure to such an impressive extent as in the Latin works; one of them, Haste thee, O God, is recorded here for the first time.
In the larger pieces, Stile Antico's sense of structure and direction is impressive in the extreme; this is a carefully thought-out, serious and intimate recording. The acoustics, of All Hallow's Church, Gospel Oak, London, are superb, and the ensemble uses different microphone positions for effective contrasts in several of the works. (Jonathan Wikeley)
4.6.10 Yorkshire Post enjoyed Stile Antico in Beverley *****
We are already fortunate in having many of the world's famous and long-established choral groups, but the young newcomers, Stile Antico, is arguably the finest this country has produced. It was in York five years ago that I predicted the prizewinners in the Early Music International Network competition would one day achieve greatness, and they have even surpassed that. Seemingly everything they perform is elevated to a new level of perfection, the balance between voices, intonation, clarity of articulation and tonal beauty are all impeccably achieved. Without a conductor, they have to listen and work with one another to a much higher degree than their illustrious contemporaries, while the sopranos float those high passages devoid of that penetrating quality we often hear. Monteverdi's gorgeous Missa in illo tempore was the major work in this opening concert in the Beverley Early Music Festival, a fine score that should stand next to the composer's celebrated Vespers of 1610, but it has sadly been neglected. Its four sections were here interspersed with the more extroverted motets of Palestrina, including a resplendent performance of the virtuosic, Assumpta est Maria, and four haunting Plainchants. (David Denton)
1.6.10 American Record Guide reviews Media Vita
This disc contains some of the most stunning beautiful and moving choral singing I have ever heard. The tone is warm, with flawless blend and ensemble. More important, these are coherent and engaging performances that never lose their way in technical thickets. The major work here is the Compline antiphon 'Media Vita'. It is a somber piece, but I would not describe it as gloomy. Handled well, as it is here, it evokes what I can only describe as penitential ecstasy - if that is not an oxymoron. It is a gigantic work that frames the plainsong canticle Nunc Dimittis. The singers here set a slow pace, but the performance is almost miraculously coherent. The surface tension never breaks for a moennt. I must confess that I nearly dreaded the prospect of listening to an unaccompanied polyphonic work lasting nearly half an hour. In the end, this performance left me wishing for more. A lesser choir would undoubtedly have made it sound tedious.
Sheppard is perhaps the least known of the Tudor great composers. In recent years he has been getting more of his due with outstanding recordings by the Sixteen, the Tallis Scholars, the Gabrieli Consort, the choir of Christ Church, Oxford, and others. Anyone with even a slight interest in his music will certainly want to acquire this recording. (Gatens)
14.4.10 Media Vita feted in Gramophone magazine
Like his contemporaries, Sheppard had to accommodate himself to changes in the liturgy, as the Tudor monarchs shifted from Roman Catholicism to Anglicanism and back. Not much is known about his life, except that he left his position at Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1548 to beome a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. This recording by the 14-strong Stile Antico offers three extensive Latin pieces leavened by shorted English anthems composed during the reign of Edward VI.
It opens with the responsary Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria. The outer sections are for six voices, the lowest but one being a cantus firmus. These frame simpler "gymel" passages, where the sopranos and altos, each divided in two, are combined with the bass. Then there is plainchant, some of it consisting of a melisma on the last syllable of the preceding polyphony. It is a most attactive piece, with clashes of harmony duly relished by the choir.
Even more elaborate is the 25-minute antiphon that gives the disc its title. Here the Nunc dimittis is chanted, its simplicity an affecting contrast to the intensity of the counterpoint. Stile Antico take the beginning quietly, as befits the words - "In the midst of life we are in death" - and work up to a powerful conclusion. The Te deum is an alternatim setting, probably composed earlier than the other two works.
Of the English anthems, "I give you a new commandment" is constructed like, for example, Tallis' "If ye love me", where the second part is completed. Whether the music be simple or complex, Stile Antico have the measure of it. Excellent! (Richard Lawrence)
6.3.10 April's Classic FM Magazine awards Media Vita *****
English composer John Sheppard (c.1515-1558) worked at the Chapel Royal around the same time as Tallis, but little detail of his life is known. What makes his music so striking is the complex yet transparent lines of his vocal writing and the tangy clashes and 'false relations' he uses in his harmony. It's quite a revelation, especially when sung with such unerring strength and clarity as it is
here by the 14-part vocal ensemble Stile Antico. From the relative simplicity of English word-settings such as The Lord's Prayer to the grand, Latin architecture of the 25-minute Media Vita, this is awe-inspiringly beautiful music, gloriously performed. (EB)
5.3.10 Yorkshire Post reviews Media Vita
It has taken an age for the Tudor composer, John Sheppard, to emerge from the shadow of Thomas Tallis, but his distinctive art and craft is now universally admired. Some credit for that must go to British chamber choirs like Stile Antico, a 14-voice ensemble of impeccable technique. The recording is dominated by the large motet, Media Vita ("in the midst of life we are in death") a performance of sustained concentration and beauty. It is also good to hear some English motets again, fresh in delivery, powerful in impact. (RC)
3.3.10 Musikzen (France) enjoys Media Vita
Six marriages, two wives beheaded, a break with the Pope, a voracious nature... Henry VIII was a man of every excess. And yet during that time, as if to compensate for the excesses of this Bluebeard, English music produced works that called for penance and meditation. From the first half of the English 16th century, we know above all the three Ts, Taverner, Tye and Tallis, who composed for Anglicans and Catholics alike with the same fervour and intensity. Here, then, is John Sheppard, who died in 1558, less well-known because his works have survived only as fragments and in manuscript form, but equally exciting, especially when interpreted as sublimely as by the ensemble Stile Antico. The lines follow each other, intersect, intertwine, and finally unite with infinite grace; the swirling of the hymns give birth to a sense of eternity, and the harmonies seem to touch the absolute. To listen to the purity and beauty of the voices of this young English choir, no-one could believe that man could be evil - not even if he were called Henry VIII. (Gérard Pangon)
2.3.10 Classica (France) reviews Media Vita
Less celebrated than his contemporary Tallis, Sheppard nevertheless had the same life as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. His oeuvre combines both the Latin and English music which Stile Antico offers us, with commendable concern for contrast.
As usual, this young English group is distinguished by a keen sense of organisation in their programme - as much dramatic (contrasting contemplative and festive music) as instructive. The immense anthem for Lent Media Vita is placed at the centre of a structure which opens and closes with a Latin composition in which plainchant is alternated with polyphony. Sheppard's polyphony is grand, full of ornament and long-breathed. However, his English anthems 'reflect the Protestant desire for textual clarity', as Matthew O'Donovan, one of the members of the ensemble, rightly states...
The ensemble distinguishes naturally between the decorative profusion in the Latin prayers and the vigorous clarity of the anthems... But Stile Antico, with their qualities of blend, true intonation and precision, also know how to vary the expression according to the text, from Marian devotion to grave meditation on the end of life (Media Vita), from firm assurance in the Resurrection (Christ rising again) to troubled prayer (Haste thee, O God). (Philippe Venturini)
1.3.10 Media Vita praised in the St Louis Post Dispatch
I was blown away by the happy surprise of this near-flawless recording of choral music by the too-little-known Tudor-era composer John Sheppard.
Stile Antico is a remarkable group of 14 young British singers who sing with style, blend, intelligence and clarity: the music here is gorgeous, and so is the music-making.
The centerpiece in this cleanly made recording is the title anthem, a monumental setting (at close to 30 minutes long) of the Nunc dimittis that ranks as one of the greatest pieces of choral writing in its era. There is not, however, a wasted note on the entire disc.
Stile Antico, which won a Grammy in 2009, shows by this effort that the group has staying power. I look forward to hearing the rest of their oeuvre. (Sarah Bryan Miller)
1.3.10 Opus Haute Définition calls Media Vita 'Incontournable'
We know little about the life of John Sheppard (towards 1515-1558). He was nonetheless one of the most prolific English composers of his era, most notably in the domain of church music, of which 'his production reflected the religious upheavals of his time, and contained both works in Latin for Catholic rite and English religious music written during the years of the formation of the Protestant cult under Edward VI and Elisabeth,' writes Wendy Thompson. The present recording well illustrates these two tracks. Let it be said from the start: this SACD is a splendour of multifaceted pleasures. First, it is a pleasure because of the works heard. It is also a pleasure because of its interpreters. But above all, it is a pleasure to once again hear the fourth recording of the most remarkable group of the last few years. For, the rigorous involvement of Stile Antico is absolutely unique, as is the perfection of intonation one can hear on each page. They crown it all by fusing tones in exemplary serenity and breathing life into what they play with rare lucidity. In short, there is no doubt about it: this SACD is a pleasure you will want to taste more than once. (Jean-Jacques Millo, trans. Lawrence Schulman)
1.3.10 Classics Today France awards Media Vita another 10/10
Warning: masterpiece! A big thank-you, first, to Harmonia Mundi USA, who haven't abandoned the SACD. This process... offers a sublime setting for the polyphony of John Sheppard. I've rarely heard a multichannel SACD as well-judged and tasteful in its placing of voices within a reverberant space. On the level of sound alone, this recording will be, for those with the right equipment, a marvellous journey. On the subject of taste and class, the other great surprise is the quality of this English ensemble, Stile Antico, which has none of the quirks of English groups; the tenors don't sound tight, the sopranos don't place their top notes as if on a level.
Following the example of the best Flemish groups (one thinks of Paul van Nevel), Stile Antico cultivates flexibility, individualisation within an overall fusion. This difficult skill isn't easy to come by, and Harmonia Mundi has been very astute in securing the services of this top-flight ensemble.
Amongst the van Nevellian qualities of Stile Antico, is a natural fluidity well illustrated by their interpretations of The Lord's Prayer or I give you a new Commandment. The harmonic tension at the opening of Media Vita is admirable, without any voice piercing the canvas. The structure of this 25-minute tour de force is sustained in superlative manner, like an endlessly-long breath.
I far prefer the blended sound of Stile Antico and their more plangent tone to the less moreure and more immediate sound of the Tallis Scholars. A final word: the polyphony of John Sheppard easily matches that of Thomas Tallis. The disc is therefore just as important for its musical substance. (Christophe Huss)
28.2.10 Philadelphia Inquirer reviews Media Vita
The 14-voice Stile Antico continues to set new standards for Renaissance polyphonic singing in this disc devoted to the 16th-century John Sheppard, whose music not only has the devout mellifluousness characteristic of the period's liturgical music, but also strange dissonances that recur, like stones in a shoe, in almost every work.
The fact that one can even hear them is evidence of Stile Antico's quality: The balance of vocal blend and individual voices takes you deep inside the music, helped by the fact that the group seems not to come to the music with any preconceived idea of what it should sound like. Thus, it sounds like itself, with all of its shifting textures and sublime logic that find the most ingenious resolutions for the most irrational dissonances. (David Patrick Stearns)
27.2.10 Diario de Sevilla (Spain) on Media Vita
John Sheppard (c.1515-1558) is known today primarily for his great antiphon Media vita in morte sumus, which is the principal reason for this new offering of the young group Stile Antico, a vocal group of the moment. The monumental nature of the Media vita responsory shines beside the Gaude Maria, a Te Deum and some English hymns, thanks to some interpretations of extreme brilliance, with a round and powerful sound, remarkable transparency and substantial variety of colour. Typical British sound, but with a deep emotional charge. (Pablo J. Vayón)
10.2.10 International Record Review on Media Vita
The English schism from the Catholic Church forced change on Sheppard (as on all his contemporaries), because the religious leaders of the new Protestant establishment demanded greater intelligibility of sung texts through less elaborate polyphony. With the possible exception of his setting of The Lord's Prayer, Sheppard's English anthems were probably produced under Edward VI between 1547 and 1553... Stile Antico's unforced pacing, sensitive phrasing and wonderfully clear textures underline the serene mood and harmonic richness of these modest works.
The disc opens with a lengthy Latin work epitomizing Sheppard's style: the responsory Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria virgo for Vespers on the feast of the Purification of the Virgin (Candlemas). It radiates joy through its tightly woven counterpoint, shimmering harmonies and daring modulations, with so-called 'gymel' passages where the two florid upper voices divide into four and combine variously with other and the lower voices. Stile Antico's enthusiastic delivery of this technically difficult piece is all the more impressive for its assurance and polish.
The disc's centrepiece and Stile Antico's real test is Media vita, an extended (more than 25 minutes) and highly elaborate six-voice settings of the poignant antiphon 'In the midst of life we are in death' for the office of Compline on third and fourth Sundays of Lent, which also incorporates the Nunc Dimittis ('Lord, now lettest though thy servant depart in peace'). It is one of Sheppard's masterpieces, a profoundly expressive work that immerses the listener in its richly textured counterpoint full of long-breathed phrases, dominated by soaring trebles over the shifting harmonies of the idiosyncratically flowing lower voices and unexpected dissonances...
This is only the second recording of this extraordinary work, preceded by The Tallis Scholars' impressive account way back in 1989... Stile Antico's approach to the work is very different from the Tallis Scholars', from their slightly slower tempo that heightens the work's mournful solemnity to their fervent expression, full of personal human anguish amidst the elaborate artifice of Sheppard's writing. Like the Tallis Scholars, they maintain perfect ensemble and unanimity of tone, but while the older choir favoured a perfectly smooth blend of the voices and a somewhat coolly crystalline tone, Stile Antico do not try to hide the differences between their 14 voices... Having women rather than countertenors also gives Stile Antico a warmer sound. Overall, the more distantly recorded and monumental Tallis Scholars, for all their sophisticated shaping of line and their trebles' flawless purity and seemingly effortless delivery, sound slightly soulless next to Stile Antico, whose particular qualities also benefit from the technological advances in audio engineering since 1989.
On a conventional CD player, Stile Antico's recorded sound is detailed yet natural within the not too resonant acoustic of All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak in London. Playing the high definition layer of the disc on a dedicated SACD player reveals the new medium's particular suitability for choral music: the voices have even greater immediacy, with a vivid sense of the space around them.
Throughout their programme, Stile Antico perform with impressive technical proficiency and expressiveness... (Christopher Price)
6.2.10 Tutti magazine (France) reviews Media Vita
The British vocal ensemble Stile Antico revives the subtle art of the composer John Sheppard, and so puts right a centuries-long injustice.
Until now, the only collection devoted to Sheppard was the work of the legendary Tallis Scholars. An irony, when one considers that Sheppard's music has long been eclipsed by the work of Thomas Tallis himself!
This injustice ' also due to the fact that his music exists only in handwritten sources, whereas his competitor's reaches us chiefly in printed form ' is now redressed by this beautiful programme, the fourth disc by the vocal ensemble Stile Antico.
This group, formed of young British singers, has since 2005 quickly achieved renown, and has been distinguished by many awards for a remarkable technique and a perfection of intonation typical of the English choral school, alongside a presence and warmth of timbre and texture which equals today's finest Franco-Flemish ensembles. To add to that tantalizing portrait, these young singers work without director, each bringing their personality and ideas to the ensemble. The result is an unmatched clarity and transparency, in which no voice is trivial or neglected.
Nevertheless, the success of this project lies not only with the vocal and musical qualities of this group. Its intelligence is also found in the choice of programme. It is true that it is difficult to 'sell' Renaissance music to a large public, since at first this repertoire can seem unvaried. However, Stile Antico's programme is full of diversity, be it at the level of genre (responsory, anthem, hymn), language (Latin alternating with English), or texture (homophony, respond), constantly renewing our attention and enabling us better to appreciate all the subtleties of Sheppard's art: vocal opulence, harmonic surprise of every kind, original melodic lines.
We imagine the astonishment and, doubtless, the admiration, of the courts of Queen Mary or Henry VIII, and can share in it today.
A beautiful renaissance for a composer - which is worth the trouble! (Jeremie Noyer)
1.2.10 Classics Today awards Media Vita 10/10 accolade
The young British ensemble Stile Antico seems to be following a prodigiously promising career course reminiscent of several other highly successful specialist groups such as The Tallis Scholars and Anonymous 4. With just four recordings so far, the 14-voice (more or less) choir has achieved impressive critical and international audience recognition, and this new disc of works by John Sheppard (c.1515-c.1559) undoubtedly will add more praise to the conductorless group's resumé and likely another award or two.
Although the catalog holds several excellent recordings of Sheppard's music, most all of it is from his justifiably distinguished Latin oeuvre, and one of the felicities of this program is the inclusion of several English-texted anthems not found elsewhere. And at first listen it's clear that these works from the mid-1550s, especially the gently flowing, unostentatious five-voice polyphony of The Lord's Prayer and the full-bodied resonance and harmonic strength of Christ rising again (for four men's parts), deserve their place alongside Sheppard's more commonly-performed Latin works, such as In pace, Verbum caro, and Libera nos. The English anthem I give you a new commandment immediately recalls Tallis' beloved If ye love me, but Sheppard's piece stands apart for its richer textures, more vivid colors (including cross relations), and more extensive use of imitative counterpoint.
The (really) big work here is the antiphon Media vita - at 25 and a half minutes, one of the 16th-century's truly monumental sacred masterpieces. Vocally it requires some serious endurance - there are very few pauses - as well as superior breath control throughout long phrases and the expected attention to balances and textural/dynamic variations.
The Tallis Scholars' performance from 20 years ago (the only other first-rate recorded version) remains as vibrant and compelling as ever, its recording perspective giving more prominence to the treble than Stile Antico's equally captivating but more uniformly balanced rendition. The Tallis Scholars' version also is four minutes faster than Stile Antico's, and on direct comparison you might notice that the slower tempo enhances the inherent tension in the harmonic rhythm - a very apt reflection of the text's seeming contradiction ("In the midst of life we are in death.").
Finally, the Tallis Scholars use a performing edition prepared by David Wulstan (the manuscript's missing sections of the tenor part had to be re-composed); here, the performing editions were prepared by members of Stile Antico. Without copies of at least one of the scores it's not easy to tell the differences, although it does seem as if the Wulstan version employs more cross-relations than the current one.
The performances here are uniformly excellent, celebrating not only the richness and diversity of Sheppard's harmonic structures, but delighting in the sheer momentum of his often relentless, unceasingly unfolding lines and sometimes clashing colors. And although the textures may be rich, these singers (and recording engineer) never obscure the character of individual lines - we hear everything, and in the most agreeable acoustic we could imagine for this music.
For various reasons (clearly explained in the liner notes) most of Sheppard's works have been the victim of centuries-long neglect, but their quality and deserved standing alongside other great masters of the period, Tallis and Parsons, for instance, is without doubt. Let's hope that this will not be Stile Antico's last foray into this repertoire - but whatever the group does next, we'll be listening. Highly recommended. (David Vernier)
17.1.10 Media Vita is reviewed by SA-CD.net
The 14 young singers comprising Stile Antico are going from strength to strength. Their previous three albums have garnered awards and critical praise for seemingly effortless and luminous renditions of Renaissance polyphony. Here they turn to John Sheppard, unaccountably still one of the least-known of a coterie of singer-composers from the Tudor period of England.
During the period from 1547-1603 (the death of Henry VIII to the accession of Elizabeth I), there was a dizzying succession of monarchs and corresponding switches in State religion. From the boy king Edward's imposition of strict protestantism, through Mary Tudor's return of Catholicism and finally Elizabeth's establishment of Anglican protestantism, these were dangerous and bloody times. Composers like Tallis, Byrd and others including Sheppard had to be able to instantly switch their styles and profess appropriate allegiances upon pain of loosing their livelihoods, or even their heads.
We have but sketchy knowledge of John Sheppard's career; he was a chorister at Magdalen College, Oxford in 1543, leaving there in 1548 to become a 'Gentleman of the Chapel Royal' in London - a similar pattern to the other better-known contemporary singer-composers, gravitating from the provinces to the capital. However, while Tallis has been celebrated for over a century, Sheppard's name has only slowly surfaced in the last three decades or so. Hyperion Records produced several ground-breaking sets of his Masses, including the exquisite 'Western Wynd' Mass, which advanced his star considerably. Matthew O'Donovan's erudite notes for this Harmonia Mundi SACD explain the most likely reasons for Sheppard's comparative obscurity; for example, little of his oeuvre was published, the MSS are often incomplete and require much scholarly detection work in consolidation. It is certainly not the quality of his compositions which are in question, just that the vagaries of history have been unkind to him.
While Hyperion's sets concentrated on Sheppard's Latin works, Stile Antico have elected for an illuminating comparison of the Latin and vernacular styles, with most of the Latin works probably dating to Mary Tudor's brief reign (except the sumptuous Te Deum, which shows some signs of being attributable to Henry VIII's reign). The vernacular liturgical pieces must originate in Edward VI's time, using texts from Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer. Here, the flight of Sheppard's Latin polyphony is severely curtailed, with nearly homophonic settings, little repetition and greater textual clarity (paralleling the reforms of Church music promulgated on the Continent by the Council of Trent).
Arguably one of Sheppard's best liturgical pieces in the vernacular style, the 'Our Father' illustrates the composer's simplification of his Latin style. It is in 5-part SAATB, and keeps warmly to the mid-range for its melodic lines, which are harmonically varied but lack the spicy collisions of his Latin mode. The bass line leads continually, as though representing the Church's foundations, while the close harmonies may symbolise the unity of Faith. These Tudor composers loved interweaving cryptic symbolism in their works, it was often the only fairly safe way of expressing their personal views.
Of the Latin works, 'Gaude Maria' is an exquisite and sunny 6-part Responsory (SSAATB). Its florid counterpoint begins raptly, in awe of the great Mystery of the Immaculate Conception, taking wing as it contemplates the motherhood of Mary and its consequences. Sheppard at several points uses "gimel", a technique for splitting the treble part into two solo voices, and he divides some of his other parts too, forming a rich tapestry of sound. Intervening plainchant lines from the tenors sound from further back in what one can imagine as a candle-lit church, the acoustic halo being evocatively atmospheric.
'Media Vita' is at the heart of this compilation; a sustained and sonorous setting of the obsequies, from "In the midst of Life we are in Death" to the Nunc dimittis ("Lord, lettest now thy servant to depart in peace"). It may relate to the death of a fellow parishioner, musician and composer Nicolas Ludford, its unique gravitas denoted by Sheppard's use of breves to carry the Latin cantus firmus. Stile Antico's stately progress through this wonderful work is a near-miracle of breath control, rhythmical but not metrical lines and transparency of texture, coupled with hypnotic ebb and flow of dynamics. It arrives at an awe-inspiring climactic conclusion. The 6-8 part 'Te Deum' is another important Latin work, alternating chant settings of the medieval Latin hymn with richly-scored petitions from the psalms, which traditionally follow the hymn. A work of considerable grandeur. One wonders at which ecclesiastical event it was first performed.
There is little to say about Harmonia Mundi's recording in All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London, a late Victorian Church with a fine and well-tamed acoustic. The sound, whether stereo or MC, is simply so right for this music, marrying the building's response to the singers exactly as the Tudor polyphonists expected, the vocal timbres truthfully represented. The producer has judiciously managed changes in choral perspective for breath-catching atmospheric effects. HM's 3 fold Digipak production is sumptuous, with notes in three languages - well-illustrated and on superb paper.
I have no doubt that this new album will be as acclaimed as Stile Antico's previous ones. It is a significant milestone on Sheppard's journey to modern recognition for his considerable talents, offering many beauties and evoking its period with considerable emotional force. (John Miller)
15.1.10 Five-star review in The Independent for London concert
State-of-the-art Kings Place has as many echo-chambers as a medieval cathedral, and that's just the foyer, so it was a pleasure to queue for one's tickets while the five members of Il Suono delivered some spirited Gabrieli.
But the real kick-off for Kings Place's Swingle-sponsored a cappella festival was the brilliant young Stile Antico ensemble. 'Stile antico' - as opposed to 'stile moderno' - originally denoted 'old style' church music written in the early seventeenth century, but this group are investing it with new and vibrant meaning. Their last Cd, which won a Grammy, was devoted to settings of the Old Testament's 'Song of Songs'. Their new one, released to coincide with this concert, is devoted to works by a Tudor contemporary of Thomas Tallis - and fellow-member of the Chapel Royal - named John Sheppard.
Not much is known about him, but it's thought that his magnum opus - a massive antiphon entitled 'Media vita' - was written in response to the deadliest epidemic to hit London after the Black Death, which may also have caused his own. Its slow and monumental opening gave little hint of what would follow, as the polyphony unfolded and the harmonies began to take unexpectedly dissonant paths. The sound was muscular, balanced, and completely vibrato-free, the musicianship impeccable. And as the singers built their sonic cathedral in the air, one realised that sound - rather than ideas - was the purpose of the work. Some sections were male-voice, others called for a multiplicity of parts, but the whole thing floated serenely ahead, propelled by an inner drama a million miles from the mood-music of minimalism.
Their recital was entitled 'Swansongs and memorials by Renaissance masters', and if nothing else equalled Sheppard's masterpiece, the programme had a lovely coherence, with plainchant linking the anthems and motets. Byrd's 'Retire my soul' had the majesty one associates with his music, while Dufay's bass-heavy 'Ave regina coelorum' gradually set itself free of its moorings, and Gombert's 'Magnificat' soared brightly in the heavens.
With Dufay's motet composed to be sung around his deathbed, Lassus's 'Vide homo' written three weeks before his end, and the plainchant prayers for the absolution of the dead evoking the fires and earthquakes of judgment day, intimations of mortality hung over everything. Is all that excessively morbid? For an answer, just turn on the television. ***** (Michael Church)
15.1.10 Gramophone Editor-in-Chief blogs about Stile Antico
Late New Year's resolution: serious immersion in Polyphonic music pre-1650! The impetus for this resolve was a concert at King's Place by Stile Antico, a wonderful group of young singers who took last year's Early Music Award for 'Song of Songs' on Harmonia Mundi (highly recommended - and on iTunes and eMusic). Like many people, and with a pretty good music education, not much was taught me about music pre-Monteverdi. And apart from listening to the occasional Tallis Scholars and Hilliard Ensemble disc, I've never really explored this huge, wonderful but rather daunting repertoire.
I think the main problem is that because it's written for unaccompanied voices there isn't the difference in texture and colour that immediately alerts you to the different sound worlds of, say, Haydn and, from 100 years later, Brahms. There aren't the obvious 'syntactical' or 'grammatical' give-aways that - in symphonic or operatic repertoire - immediately say 'that's Russian' or 'that's French' and 'I'd say 1850ish' or 'late 19th century'. The other barrier, for me at least, is that this music is so old that it's difficult to establish a context and a sense of how one composer 'fits' alongside another.
One way to give the music a sense of chronology and context, it occurred to me, would be to adjust the composers' dates to a time when the historical background is there as part of one's education and general perception. So, taking some of last night's composers' dates, and adding on 300 years, would give you: Byrd (1840-1923), Dufay (1697-1774), Sheppard (1815-1858), Gombert (1795-1860), Josquin (1750-1821) and Schütz (1885-1972). Crazy I know, but it means that Sheppard's dates would equate with someone like Liszt and Schütz's with someone like Stravinsky - and in a modern context they're chalk and cheese. To the untutored ear so much of this old music sounds similar (especially as the words are often drawn from the same biblical sources) but when placed in relative context, I'm certainly encouraged to listen for advances in both harmony and structure, to take the two most obvious elements.
Sitting through Stile Antico's concert - and though the King's Place acoustic is a very appealing one - I felt for the singers not having that extra warmth and delay that an ancient cathedral chapter house lends the music (especially at the ends of pieces where the building usually takes over, swilling it around the huge open spaces to often magical effect). But Hall One is such a lovely space - a beautiful blend of light wood (that still smells of wood, deliciously!) and plain blue, subtly lit, that it feels strangely old and new at the same time! It's perfect for music of the classical period - Haydn opera excerpts last year sounded ideal in the hall. And it's also got an intimacy that seems to engender a very palpable rapport between audience and performer (and audience and audience given the number of sweets and drinks that were offered strangers during these winter months of tiresome coughs).
The first half of the programme ended with John Sheppard's 25-minute Media vita, at whose heart sits the Nunc dimittis - a song that always moves me profoundly with its sense of fulfilment and its touching fusion of the just-born and the soon-to-die, and the very cyclical nature of life and death and its constant renewal. It's a wonderfully concentrated work and the young, sappy voices of Stile Antico, blended with the skill of a great winemaker, got it across it magnificently. Their latest album - launched, as it happens, last night - is a Sheppard collection and I, for one, will be putting it straight into the 'In Tray' of polyphonic music that I'm determined to grapple with this year. And I sincerely hope that, come the autumn, someone will be able to play me a piece of medieval polyphony and I'll be able to say 'Hmmm, I'd say late 16th century, probably Flemish'or possibly French'. And somehow, listening to Josquin or Gombert on my iPod strikes me as amazingly cool! (James Jolly)
10.1.10 High praise in the Observer for Media Vita
This recording of works by Tudor composer John Sheppard (1515-1558) is the fourth disc by young British ensemble Stile Antico, and the best yet. Their purity of sound, with a fullness achieved by only 14 voices, reveals Sheppard's rich counterpoint. Despite this extraordinary finesse there's no self-conscious beauty, only intelligent, vital simplicity. Sheppard is one of the more mysterious of "English Renaissance" composers. The meditative, 25-minute central work, "Media Vita" ("In the midst of life we are in death"), dark with agonising dissonances, is a heartfelt quest for consolation, and a formidable masterpiece. (Fiona Maddocks)
4.1.10 Media Vita receives its first review in the Independent
It is more than 20 years since the Tallis Scholars recorded Media Vita and though their performance remains peerless, Stile Antico's recording has many attractive qualities.
The first of these is a very lovely alto blend, which remains a constant in a programme that contrasts Sheppard's ecstatic Latin polyphony with the quiet simplicity of his English motets. "I Give You a New Commandment" is similar in subject and style to Tallis's "If Ye Love Me", while "The Lord's Prayer" is one of the finest I've heard. (Anna Picard)