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Live Performances

Marylebone concert praised

Barry Creasy, MusicOMH (8 December 2022)

To read the full review (paywalled), please visit MusicOMH.

A programme consisting of mostly Renaissance polyphony has the potential to be a little samey if not handled well, but Stile Antico had been careful in their choice of items, such that, even within the quite closely defined genre there was plenty of musical variety. Ravenscroft’s foursquare homophonic Remember, O thou man contrasted well with the agile overlapping peals of vocal bells in Peter Philips’s Hodie nobis de caelo, Hieronymus Praetorius’s Magnificat quinti toni (in which the traditional German/macaronic carols ‘Joseph lieber, Joseph mein’ and ‘In dulci jubilo’ are cheekily inserted into the usual polyphony/plainsong alternating verses), and Francisco Guerrero’s busy, bouncy Villancico A un niño llorando.

As ever, the group’s balance was perfect, whether singing as twelve, ten, eight or five voices; dynamics and expression were expertly controlled (the lightest of touches for the triple time ‘Ave vera virginitas’ passages in Josquin’s Ave Maria, virgo serena, for example, or the percussive imitative repetitions of ‘dispersit’ in the Praetorius Magnificat). The items were well chosen, also, to allow the interplay of choral groups – such as the antiphonal statements and tutti Alleluias in Hans Leo Hassler’s Hodie Christus natus est, or the contrast between the three-part verse and the full five-part introitus in William Byrd’s Rorate Caeli; even the opening plainsong (Corde natus ex parentis) was divided between solo singers, upper voices and lower voices to add a little drama to a unison recitation.

Of all the pieces, though, the most moving were the ‘responsory’ items (where sections of the polyphony are repeated between plainsong verses): Thomas Tallis’s Videte miraculum and John Sheppard’s Verbum caro factum est. In each of these, the complex polyphony builds in intensity, with the odd modal tonalities adding to slow tectonic shifts in the music. Stile Antico were in their element, here, expertly controlling texture and dynamic, and slightly leaning into the occasional false relation to add a tiny pop of piquancy to the inexorable progression of harmony.