Seen and Heard in Lammermuir
Laurence Vittes, Seen and Heard (23 September, 2011)
Celebrating the 400th anniversary of Tomás Luis de Victoria, the celebrated a cappella group Stile Antico (one of Harmonia Mundi’s headliners) proved once again that, with patience, sense can be made out of even the most seemingly obscure patchwork of 16th-century choral music. Parody masses, after all, require a kind of rare familiarity which only scholars can be expected to achieve. No wonder that the audience’s warm, enthusiastic applause occurred so spontaneously, if irregularly.
Fortunately, as you listen to music from so many centuries past, the differences between composers begin to become apparent, particularly Victoria’s precise control and stunning inner detail, and his ability to affirm through blocks of light and shade. The concluding Laetatus Sum, sung throughout in a clear, forthright style, had a radiant if sober glory that provided light for the cold night.
By contrast, Palestrina’s Surge Propera is a springtime lyric in all but name, more personal than Victoria yet adhering to a similarly pious theme. Morales’s Jubilate Deo also sets out a joyous musical vision, set to long-limbed Latin lines.
The well-known Janequin entertainment – with only four singers sounding at times as if they were 40 – is a different animal with its Technicolor narrative and sounds of battle. Stile Antico was triumphantly equal to the task, and found echoes of Henry VIII’s rough wooing (i.e., besieging) of Haddington, and even greater echoes of Henry V’s St. Crispen’s Day Speech (as imagined by Shakespeare) before the battle of Agincourt.
In a post-Reformation Church, once home to fire-breathing preacher John Knox, singing Catholic music may seem like heresy, but St. Mary’s Parish Church never blushed one bit. Located in the historic market town of Haddington, which it has served for more than 400 years, the oft-restored building is one of those tall, long and narrow ecclesiastical spaces along which words and music fall in like parishioners and focus like lasers.
Throughout the evening, it struck me that hearing Stile Antico live is the best way of understanding just how good Harmonia Mundi’s recordings are. The group’s stunning variety and smooth control of color, tone and nuance was remarkably similar to what is heard on their CDs. And after hearing (a week earlier) The King’s Singers use a pitch pipe in the gaudy exuberance of Poznan Cathedral, it was refreshing to hear the soft tones of one of the Stile Antico crew giving the correct starting notes for each piece to come.