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1 August, 2007

AllMusic’s verdict on Music for Compline

This gorgeous release by the young English unaccompanied vocal group Stile Antico would be worth your time and money simply for the quiet, perfectly intoned singing on display here. But the album accomplishes more than vocal virtuosity. Stile Antico presents music by three generations of English choral composers, all of it from the Catholic sphere and all of it written for the late-evening Compline services of the liturgical day. That programming decision results in a collection of music that wouldn’t have been heard in the sixteenth century (the older music of Sheppard probably wouldn’t have lasted until the century’s end) but that does make sense to the modern listener trying to learn to hear this music with Renaissance ears. The reason is that the program is ideally structured to lead the listener from Sheppard (and his contemporary Hugh Aston) to Thomas Tallis and his musical heir, William Byrd. The disc opens with a two-section “Libera nos” by Sheppard, rich and dense. It moves on to one of Byrd’s sparsest compositions, the hymn “Christe, qui lux es et dies,” which ironically seems to have been influenced by the severe homophony of Anglican service music. Sheppard is generously represented, and this disc is strongly recommended to anyone who has been intrigued with his music but has felt overwhelmed by an entire disc’s worth of it — it seems to give the modern listener little to hang on to, but when placed in contrast with the more ordered works of Tallis and Byrd it seems luxuriant. The program is tied together as well by the Compline themes, which lend the entire album a meditative cast that will appeal to casual listeners as strongly as it will to closely attentive ones. This is superb choral singing that stands out from the crowd of recordings of unaccompanied English music of the sixteenth century.