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From the Imperial Court

Sinfini awards five start to From the Imperial Court

Andrew Stewart, Sinfini Music (30 January, 2015)

Marriage rather than military might propelled the Hapsburg dynasty to power, transforming a noble family of Swiss origin into Europe’s ruling family. The Hapsburgs (or Habsburgs, depending on how Germanic you’re feeling) topped the continent’s royal super league from the early 1400s to the mid-1700s, and kept up the appearance of absolute power as rulers of Austro-Hungarian Empire until its fragmentation at the end of the First World War.

The Hapsburg’s heyday, driven by the grand dynastic alliances and achievements of Maximilian I, his son Charles V and grandson Philip II of Spain in the 1500s, coincided with a golden age in the composition of sacred and courtly music. Stile Antico’s ninth album for harmonia mundi spans over a century’s worth of outstanding works with close Hapsburg connections. Its contents, exquisitely performed, reflect the enduring value of the family’s arts patronage and the outstanding quality of the composers touched by it.

Stile Antico work without a conductor. They approach renaissance vocal polyphony with all the care a top-notch string quartet would give to the quartets of Beethoven or Shostakovich. The depth of their listening and intense receptivity of individual members to the music’s feeling-tone belong to the best qualities in chamber music-making, as do the group’s beauty of sound, uncanny blend and feeling for the ebb and flow of musical phrases. For a jaw-dropping example of what this means in practice, listen to the sublime close of Alonso Lobo’s Versa est in luctum, written for Philip II’s funeral service in 1598.

The album’s final track, Virgo prudentissima, was written by imperial chapel master Heinrich Isaac for the 1507 confirmation of Maximilian I’s election as Holy Roman Emperor. Stile Antico revel in its edgy style and vivid contrasts, strikingly different from Lobo’s super-smooth motet, helped by choirboy-like sopranos, immaculate tuning and unwavering focus across the work’s 13-minute span.

Charles V’s life, in times of war and peace, was graced by music. His favourite song, Josquin’s Mille regretz, receives a heart-melting performance in which musical simplicity and emotional pain are fused together without diminishing their particular qualities.

To the dense polyphony of Clemens non Papa’s Carole magnus eras, Stile Antico bring lightness of touch and terrific rhythmic energy. They also spotlight the motet’s exuberant praise for Charles V, the godlike emperor who held much of the known world in his grasp.

Thanks to Philip II’s marriage to Mary Tudor, Thomas Tallis makes the Hapsburg hit parade. The Englishman is represented here by Loquebantur variis linguis, which may have been performed by the Capilla Flamenca (Philip’s group of Flemish musicians) and Mary’s Chapel Royal. Stile Antico’s interpretation, bewitching in its tonal presence and richness, harbours powers of concentration that verge on the supernatural.

Words (my words at least) are insufficient to convey the transcendent beauty and spiritual scope of this album’s music and what Stile Antico do with it. Scholars will no doubt quibble about whether certain pieces would have been heard at the Hapsburg court with voices and instruments, but Stile Antico’s unaccompanied performances, blessed with light and shade, imagination and expressive variety, render the debate academic. I dare you to listen to Ludwig Senfl’s Quis dabit oculis, or any other track on this album, and tell me this is not great ensemble singing.