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Live Performances

Stile Antico at King’s Place

Michael Church, The Independent (15 January, 2010)

State-of-the-art Kings Place has as many echo-chambers as a medieval cathedral, and that’s just the foyer, so it was a pleasure to queue for one’s tickets while the five members of Il Suono delivered some spirited Gabrieli.

But the real kick-off for Kings Place’s Swingle-sponsored a cappella festival was the brilliant young Stile Antico ensemble. ‘Stile antico’ – as opposed to ‘stile moderno’ – originally denoted ‘old style’ church music written in the early seventeenth century, but this group are investing it with new and vibrant meaning. Their last CD was devoted to settings of the Old Testament’s ‘Song of Songs’. Their new one, released to coincide with this concert, is devoted to works by a Tudor contemporary of Thomas Tallis – and fellow-member of the Chapel Royal – named John Sheppard.

Not much is known about him, but it’s thought that his magnum opus – a massive antiphon entitled ‘Media vita’ – was written in response to the deadliest epidemic to hit London after the Black Death, which may also have caused his own. Its slow and monumental opening gave little hint of what would follow, as the polyphony unfolded and the harmonies began to take unexpectedly dissonant paths. The sound was muscular, balanced, and completely vibrato-free, the musicianship impeccable. And as the singers built their sonic cathedral in the air, one realised that sound – rather than ideas – was the purpose of the work. Some sections were male-voice, others called for a multiplicity of parts, but the whole thing floated serenely ahead, propelled by an inner drama a million miles from the mood-music of minimalism.

Their recital was entitled ‘Swansongs and memorials by Renaissance masters’, and if nothing else equalled Sheppard’s masterpiece, the programme had a lovely coherence, with plainchant linking the anthems and motets. Byrd’s ‘Retire my soul’ had the majesty one associates with his music, while Dufay’s bass-heavy ‘Ave regina coelorum’ gradually set itself free of its moorings, and Gombert’s ‘Magnificat’ soared brightly in the heavens.

With Dufay’s motet composed to be sung around his deathbed, Lassus’s ‘Vide homo’ written three weeks before his end, and the plainchant prayers for the absolution of the dead evoking the fires and earthquakes of judgment day, intimations of mortality hung over everything. Is all that excessively morbid? For an answer, just turn on the television.