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From the Imperial Court

High praise for From the Imperial Court

Simon Thompson, MusicWeb International (February 2015)

This disc gives us a tour of some of the great composers that were hired by the great dynasty of the Hapsburgs – or should that be Habsburgs? Scholars differ – in their 16th century heyday. It includes famous names like Tallis and Josquin, but also those I’d never come across before, such as Crecquillon and Isaac. In the scholarly but accessible booklet, however, we are given sufficient historical details for each composer, as well as colour illustrations of the principal Habsburg monarchs involved; in other words, it’s up to Harmonia Mundi’s usual high standards. This disc would be interesting purely as a historic exploration, even without the breathtaking musicianship on show.

What musicianship it is. I’ve written before of Stile Antico’s collaborative spirit and magical sound. What strikes me most in this recording is the incredible tightness of their sound, a consequence, no doubt, of their refusal to sing with a conductor. Their more democratic approach to music-making breeds more of a spirit of cooperation, and it also means they have to listen more carefully to one another.

The results are exciting and beautiful. There is some fairly “standard ” polyphony from Morales to begin with, but I liked the lighter textures of Crequillon. Much darker, by contrast, are the ensuing motets from Senfl — a rich and stark public funeral ode for Maximilian I — and the much more private, intimate farewell from Josquin, close and familiar. Gombert’s Magnificat maintains transparency while building up to a radiant final Gloria. He then sets the same text as Josquin and gets interestingly different results, still poignant but with more emphasis on the upper voices. Pierre de la Rue’s Absalon fili mi is a lament for the death of Philip of Burgundy, full of painful dissonances and dark harmonies. Clemens builds an impressive structure from very simple building blocks, and appropriately flatters Philip II as he will soon inherit the power which he will exercise over his father’s Capilla Flamenca. Lobo’s famous funeral motet for Philip II hangs with lots of suspended dissonances and moves with slow grandeur, while Isaac’s concluding Virgo Prudentissima builds a complex structure from simple motives, maintaining its textual transparency at all times.

Not only are the performances magically blended, but the recording captures this beautifully and weaves a web of sound around the listener, whether it’s in stereo or surround. In short, very good indeed.