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Classical Source on Stile Antico’s Shakespeare Prom

Amanda-Jane Doran, Classical Source (15 August, 2016)

Stile Antico brings a fresh, intelligent and collaborative approach to vocal polyphony. There is no conductor. In Thomas Morley’s ‘It was a Lover and his Lasse’ the twelve singers were grouped in fours, with a voice to each part. The final verse was sung by the ensemble with a texture and sound which was orchestral in comparison. The beauty of the tone was exceptional, beautifully balanced between the equal number of male and female singers.

Two contrasting pieces by William Byrd followed, the first a celebrated piece addressed to the Virgin Queen: ‘O, Lord, make thy Servant, Elizabeth our Queen’, possibly written by Byrd to secure a post at the Chapel Royal. The viol-players almost drowned out the choir at this point, but were thankfully more muted for the tribute to the catholic martyr Edmund Campion ‘Why doe I use my Paper, Inck and Pen’. This was sung simply by tenor Benedict Hymas, with lovely timbre and devotional intensity. One wonders at Byrd’s ability to balance service to the Queen with his implacable Catholic sympathies.

Huw Watkins’s ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’ (2014) followed, a fleet setting of one of Shakespeare’s longer poems. Close dissonant harmonies alternate with soaring melodies and drone effects for something intriguingly juxtaposed and which ends surprisingly in unison. Byrd’s Fantasia ‘Two parts in One and in the Fourth Above’ from Fretwork provided a moment of reflection between the stunning vocal selections.

Settings by Thomas Tomkins, a student of Byrd, and Robert Ramsey came next. Both produced notable motets on the death of Prince Henry in 1612. Ramsay’s ‘Sleep, Fleshly Birth’ contains gorgeous Italianate suspensions with descending and augmented motifs. Fretwork interjected another short viol arrangement by Byrd, ‘The Leaves be Green’, and then it was back to The Bard for Robert Johnson’s unsophisticated version of ‘Full Fathom Five’, made during Shakespeare’s lifetime.

Nico Muhly set ‘Gentle Sleep’, from Henry IV, for Stile Antico’s tenth anniversary last year; its rocking pulse and shifting tonality hint at wakefulness and the beguiling charms of sleep. Layered susurrations give way to a floating soprano line, then with alto and baritone solos. The nocturnal influence continued with Orlando Gibbons’s melancholy instrumental ‘In Nomine’ built around plainsong, and then John Wilbye’s motet ‘Draw on Sweet Night’ closed this exquisite excursion into (mainly) sixteenth- and seventeenth-century polyphony.

The encore, Gibbons’s ‘The Silver Swan’, the most darkly bittersweet of madrigals, emphasised the relationship between instruments and the human voice. Initially the viols played alone, then they were joined by the dozen voices, sweetly blended.