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Stereophile on ‘Divine Theatre’

Jason Victor Serinus, Stereophile (5 March, 2017)

You may never before have heard of Flemish composer Giaches de Wert (b. 1535 somewhere in the region of Antwerp or Ghent), nor listened to his sacred motets, which I auditioned as a native DSD64 download from NativeDSD. Regardless, his music’s supreme beauty, captured in convincingly natural spaciousness on Harmonia Mundi’s latest DSD-native hybrid SACD from the 13-member, English vocal ensemble, Stile Antico, will likely sweep you away.

De Wert spent most his life in Mantua, Italy, where he served as maestro di cappella in Duke Guglielmo Gonzaga’s chapel of Santa Barbara. Known mainly as a madrigalist, whose compositions influenced Monteverdi, he also published three collections of sacred motets. It is from the second and third of these collections of church music, published in 1581, that Stile Antico has drawn this collection of five- and six-voice motets that set passages from the New Testament.

If you have an affinity for the sacred vocal music of the Renaissance, but tend to steer clear of religious doctrine, you may do what I did at first: simply close your eyes and soar with the sublime, impeccably tuned singing. If, however, you take the time to read the texts and translations—it took me a while to force myself to sufficiently overcome my allergy to doctrine in order to focus on the words—you will discover de Wert’s acutely sympathetic response to text.

Take, for example “Peccavi super numerum, which sets The Prayer of Manasseh; Psalm 50:3–4 Vulgate. De Wert chooses descending scales to convey the evil doings of he who confesses his sins. When the prayer ends with, “Against you only have I sinned, for I have provoked your wrath and done evil in your sight,” the composer underscores the seriousness of sin and its consequences by repeating, over and over, the words “provoked your wrath.” He does the same with the phrase “To whom glory,” as it appears in the final motet of the program, “O altitudo divitiarum” (O, the height of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!) (Romans 11:33–36). Contrast both complex treatments with de Wert’s setting of “O Crux ave” (Hail, O Cross) (from a tenth-century adaptation of Venantius Fortunatus, “Vexilla Regis,” 569 AD), where the music grows quiet and devotional, as befits a simple prayer to remove the sins of the guilty.

The setting of “Ascendente Jesu in naviculam” (When Jesus had climbed into the boat) exemplifies de Wert’s skill with tailoring vocal lines and phrasing to the needs of a story. Each change of direction or harmony signifies a development in the succinct narrative (Matthew 8:23–26). High female voices, in turn, are reserved for the start of “Virgo Maria hodie ad caelum assumpta est” (Today the Virgin Marry is taken up into heaven).

Not prone to dwell on darker sentiments longer than necessary, Stile Antico consistently moves the music along, creating a glowing sonic tapestry. They’re also not afraid of joy, as conveyed in the program’s opener, “Gaudete in Domino” (Rejoice in the Lord) (Philippians 4:4). The transparency of the recording, made in All Hallows’ Church, Gospel Oak, London, further enables voices, music, and listeners to float free of the doubly enslaving punishments of guilt and sin.