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A Wondrous Mystery

Gramophone on A Wondrous Mystery

Edward Breen, Gramophone (December 2015)

This new disc of Renaissance Christmas music from vocal ensemble Stile Antico offers a cleverly balanced selection of festive Lutheran and Roman Catholic works. Running through the programme is the sumptuous Missa Pastores quidnam vidistis by Jacobus Clemens non Papa, and at its centre sits Hieronymus Praetorius’s astounding double-choir Magnificat with interleaved carols.

The Lutheran works are sung with sprightly and attractive energy: in particular the sopranos sparkle in Melchior Vulpius’s delightful canon Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen. In contrast, the Catholic polyphony tends towards a calmness that can veer too close to leisurely when compared to such vigorous carols. Stile Antico have a considered, homogenous sound that is extremely sonically beautiful; however, in Clemens’s motet and longer Mass movements in particular (Gloria and Credo), their ponderous approach can leave one longing for a little more imperative and direction. While individual polyphonic lines are well crafted and expertly sung, the overall effect is the aural equivalent of standing in a snow-gloibe: phrases gently rise and fall on all sides without an overarching sense of purpose. This is, of course, a very subjective criticism since Stile Antico’s approach is perfectly valid and well delivered, yet my preference is for The Tallis Scholars’ recording of this Mass, infused as it is with a consistent forward momentum leading to sensational moments of arrival at declamatory passages such as ‘chorus angelorum’. There is little such obvious Annunciation wonderment from Stile Antico, yet a few times, when they allow recurring motifs to rise to the foreground, the effect is suddenly much more engaging.

However one prefers polyphony to be sung, there is no denying that this is sure to be a justly popular Christmas choice. it is a smooth and assured album and both the ensemble sound and the individual voices are extremely attractive. In short: charming but not challenging.