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The New York Times on Stile Antico’s NYC debut

Steve Smith, New York Times (26 October, 2009)

When Stile Antico, a bright, young early-music vocal ensemble from England, made its New York debut as part of the Music Before 1800 series at Corpus Christi Church on Sunday afternoon, it was not the first time the group had set foot in the building. A representative of Harmonia Mundi, the label for which Stile Antico records, said the singers had visited the church during their first trip to the United States, when they performed at the Boston Early Music Festival in June.

That stopover, as well as the additional time Stile Antico spent in the church before the concert, gave the singers opportunities to hear how the room would respond to their sound. Not that they needed to work hard to make an impact. Listen to Stile Antico’s most recent CD, “Song of Songs,” and you are confronted with an ensemble of breathtaking freshness, vitality and balance. It was no fluke of marketing that made the disc a best seller and earned it a Gramophone Award (though the group’s profile was probably boosted by having worked with Sting).

Nevertheless, Stile Antico’s extra effort paid dividends during a concert that nearly duplicated the contents of the album, a collection of 16th-century European settings of passages from the biblical Song of Solomon. The intelligence with which these singers approached their work on record was also evident in the way they deployed their forces live.

During one plainchant selection, “Dum esset rex”, two members sang from the back of the center aisle, making the entire sanctuary ring. Two further plainchants, “Laeva eius” and “Speciosa facta est”, were sung from an enclosed chamber to one side of the altar, creating a haunting, disembodied distance.

Working without a conductor, the singers kept a keen eye on one another, giving their pitch-perfect sound a finely honed precision in the rippling sequences of Clemens non Papa’s “Ego flos campi” and the ricocheting counterpoint of Sebastian de Vivanco’s “Veni, dilecte mi.” Rich harmonies in selections by Nicolas Gombert and Jean Lheritier had a luminous glow.

The passion was palpable in Francisco Guerrero’s “Trahe me post te,” a Marian devotional that more than verged on eroticism. You could almost smell the perfume wafting through a ravishing account of Victoria’s “Vidi speciosam,” which closed the program. After those selections, the encore – a stately “Miserere mihi, Domine” by William Byrd – was a much-needed cold shower.