early music vocal ensemble - stile antico

Stile Antico's latest reviews appear in full below. For briefer press highlights, please follow the links above.

22.8.13 The Telegraph praises 'The Phoenix Rising'

quoteThe rapt spirituality of William Byrd's "Ave verum corpus" launches this impressive sequence of Tudor church music embracing works by Gibbons, Morley, Tallis, Taverner and Robert White. Stile Antico's shaping of the music is sublime, its knitting of the counterpoint mellifluous; and its discreet awareness of the "false relation" dissonances in Tallis's "Salvator mundi" adds a touch of harmonic spice. Poised and polished though the performances are, there is always the sense that this is living music with a powerfully expressive sacred message. (GN)

17.8.13 High praise from the New Zealand Herald

Byrd's Kyrie eleison almost steals into the consciousness, such is the beguiling weave of voices.The cover of Stile Antico's tribute to the glories of Tudor music will catch your eye - a late 15th century image of the legendary phoenix by Italian artist Antonio Grifo; that achieved, the disc should have little trouble captivating your ear.

Over the past decade, this English chamber choir have established themselves as one of the leading exponents of Renaissance repertoire. Not that these singers have sequestered themselves in chapels and cathedrals - they were also on hand when Sting took to the music of John Dowland. Stile Antico have toured internationally as far as Australia, enchanting some of their greatest fans. American critic Alex Ross commented that the group had provided him with the most ravishing sound of 2009.

The Phoenix Rising is a centenary celebration, marking 100 years of generous sponsorship from the Carnegie UK Trust. Not only is there Carnegie money behind this recording, but it was this institution, back in the 1920s, that funded the modern-day publishing of the music being sung - the 10-volume set of Tudor Church Music.

William Byrd's magisterial Mass for Five Voices threads through the album's 14 tracks, providing a framework for various motets and settings by other composers. Byrd's Kyrie eleison almost steals into the consciousness, such is the beguiling weave of voices; the Gloria has no fear of ecstatic jubilation and the final Agnus Dei invokes serenity with vocal velvet.

If Byrd provides the core of this choral constellation, then around it are equally impressive stars, some familiar, some not. The "old school" of Thomas Tallis and John Taverner is marked by piquant harmonic clashes and, in the case of Taverner's O splendor gloriae, spare textures that hearken back to a medieval past.

Orlando Gibbons' O Clap Your Hands Together is such a merry dance that one almost expects a fa-la-la chorus. Like the rest of the music, it benefits from the spacious acoustics of Hampstead's St Jude-on-the-Hill. Harry Potter aficionados will know the church from the final instalments of that tedious franchise, but even if you don't see the Edwin Lutyens building on this CD, the music is so much better. (William Dart)

22.8.13 The Telegraph praises 'The Phoenix Rising'

quoteThe rapt spirituality of William Byrd's "Ave verum corpus" launches this impressive sequence of Tudor church music embracing works by Gibbons, Morley, Tallis, Taverner and Robert White. Stile Antico's shaping of the music is sublime, its knitting of the counterpoint mellifluous; and its discreet awareness of the "false relation" dissonances in Tallis's "Salvator mundi" adds a touch of harmonic spice. Poised and polished though the performances are, there is always the sense that this is living music with a powerfully expressive sacred message. (GN)

11.8.13 The Guardian enjoys 'The Phoenix Rising'

quoteStile Antico never disappoints. This disc of Tudor church music, sung by the small, conductor-less ensemble, doubles as a well organised programme of Byrd, Tallis, Gibbons and others, and a condensed history of the early music revival in the first half of the last century. Until OUP published the 10-volume Tudor Church Music, between 1922 and 1929, little of this vocal repertoire was known. In a philanthropic gesture which transformed the musical landscape, the project was funded by the Carnegie UK Trust, which marks its centenary this year. Stile Antico honour the endeavour with their customary clean lines, pure tone and precise articulation. If all that sounds a bit efficient, I'm struggling to say only that it is music making at the highest level. (Fiona Maddocks)

1.8.13 Five stars from Audiophile Audition

his recording has its basis in a collection of music called the Tudor Church Music, a ten-volume edition of works by great Tudor composers complied between 1922-29, available only in the originals up to then and also in part format only. After this publication the treasure of this age was given to choirs all over the UK and indeed the world as well in excellent and readable editions. However, there were problems: the original editor, RR Terry, first director of music at Westminster Cathedral, did not push the task along and was ousted by the committee, who made the unenlightened decision to stop the projected 20 volumes and settle for ten, saying that there was little evidence such music would ever be accepted in normal parish settings.

Today most of this repertory has extended to churches everywhere, and in fact the spurt of publication that followed in the next 75 years consisted largely of the music that was part of the ten folios. No one could have foreseen the activity that would come from the period instrument movement and the general worldwide resurgence of interest in medieval music of all kinds. This recording presents music from the TCM collection, from Byrd's popular work designed for the recusant Catholics and his splendid Mass, to his friend Tallis's works in the same genre, though done well before the worst of the persecutions was to come. White's work demonstrates the influence of the older style antiphons, the alternating plainsong and polyphony a characteristic of the time of Bloody Mary's Catholic revival. The piece of madrigalist Morley redounds to the madrigal even here, a secular work on religious themes that found its way into the TCM as church music—along with some others as well. Gibbons, whose flashiness is well-known to Tudor music lovers, is represented by his exquisite O clap your hands together and more sedate Almighty and everlasting God. John Taverner is from the late Renaissance, an inventive and courageously original composer whose emphasis on syllabic methodology and ecstatic line sets him apart as someone who thrills from the first bar.

I should mention that Stile Antico has seen fit to divide these works among the movements of the Byrd Mass; this gives the impression that some sort of liturgical scheme is in place when in fact it would be hard to justify something as elaborate as this. For the Mass lovers this might prove a deterrent, but the program as a whole, in sumptuous surround sound and sung with a rarified perfection, is extremely satisfying. (Steven Ritter)

1.8.13 Five stars for 'The Phoenix Rising' from Sinfini Music

quoteWhether you judge Andrew Carnegie as a titan of capitalism, a robber baron or a great philanthropist will depend on your political viewpoint. It would be reasonable to see the man, born to poverty in Dunfermline in the 1830s, as all three and more. To mark the centenary year of the charitable organisation that bears Carnegie’s name, Stile Antico turn to the contents of Tudor Church Music (TCM), a landmark series of ten volumes published in the 1920s with funding from the Carnegie UK Trust. Britain's underserved reputation as the 'land without music' changed forever with the phoenix-like appearance of TCM.

Stile Antico is on top of its game here. They open with two TCM treasures, Byrd's Ave verum and Tallis's Salvator mundi (I), and build a compelling programme around the movements of Byrd's Mass for five voices. There's a rare spaciousness about the conductorless vocal ensemble's singing, aided by the acoustics of St Jude-on-the-Hill in Hampstead Garden Suburb and terrific recorded sound. But the effect arises chiefly from the mysterious power of Tudor polyphony to elongate clock time and Stile Antico's corporate empathy for it. If that sounds strange, listen to the subtle shifts of rhythmic energy they bring to the Credo of Byrd’s Mass and Tallis's In ieiuno et fletu, pieces easily (and often) ruined by a metronomic 'beat'. Taverner's aptly named O splendor gloriae stands as this sublime album's crowning jewel, a pristine object for still contemplation. Switch off all mobile devices, shut out distractions and simply be with the experience of listening. (Andrew Stewart)

26.7.13 'The Phoenix Rising' praised in the Independent

quoteThe Phoenix Rising is a programme of works collated in the 1920s publication of Tudor Church Music by the Carnegie UK Society, which proved hugely influential in popularising this choral form through the last century. Exquisitely rendered by the Stile Antico consort, the works range chronologically from John Taverner's O Splendor Gloriae, in which the Eton Choirbook style is still audible, to Orlando Gibbons' O Clap Your Hands Together, where Psalm 47 is brilliantly set in a cascade of repetitions that develops intense hypnotic power. The various sections of William Byrd's Mass for Five Voices are interspersed among works by Thomas Tallis, Thomas Morley and Robert White. (Andy Gill)

20.7.13 'The Phoenix Rising' reviewed in The Times

quoteCelebrating the influential Tudor Church Music volumes brought out in the 1920s by the Carnegie UK Trust (and the trust's centenary), the conductor-less choir Stile Antico sing Tudor and Jacobean classics - Byrd's five-part Mass interspersed with White, Tallis, Gibbons, Morley and Taverner - with exemplary tuning and discipline. The more elaborate and spacious the music, the warmer the interpretation; only Byrd's Ave verum sounds a bit bloodless. (Richard Morrison)

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

quoteThe 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)