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Live Performances

“Stile Antico makes all else just noise”

David Weininger, The Boston Globe (19 December, 2011)

CAMBRIDGE – Near the end of the first half of Stile Antico’s Saturday concert, alien sounds began to creep into St. Paul Church. A particularly noisy rock band was playing at the nearby Democracy Center, and the sound wafted in as the group was navigating a complex Magnificat setting by the 16th-century composer Robert White. (Police were summoned and the noise was soon extinguished; one wonders whether interrupting an evening of Tudor polyphony carries a particularly severe penalty.)

That the 13 singers managed to retain their concentration and stay focused on White’s lavish score is testimony to the skills that have quickly made them one of the most admired vocal groups in early music. But it also underscores the way an evening of Renaissance music fashions its own world in beautiful seclusion.

All music does this, but particularly in vocal polyphony of this era, the church or concert hall expands into a universe, and everything else seems to recede. Stile Antico, with its beautifully polished sound, immaculate tuning, and intelligent approach to texts, achieves this result as well as any ensemble, and better than most.

The composers, though, were not so splendidly isolated. As one of the group’s singers reminded the audience, much of the music heard on Saturday was haunted by the tug of war between Catholicism and Protestantism. Especially poignant in this regard were four pieces by William Byrd, Catholic music written under threat of persecution. Each was brief and luminous, perhaps reflecting the furtive life of an outlawed faith.

By contrast, works by Thomas Tallis had a luxurious expanse. A motet, “Videte miraculum”, and selections from his Missa “Puer Natus Est” unfolded in resonant, widely spaced chords over static harmony. Everything seemed perfectly ordered; when dissonances came, they knocked a listener’s expectations sideways.

Here Stile Antico was at its best, marshaling color, texture, and pacing to give shape to music that can otherwise seem gorgeous and inert. The Agnus Dei of the Mass was one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard.

White’s florid Magnificat, John Sheppard’s solemn “Verbum caro” and some plainchant filled out the all-English program. An encore allowed the group to travel to Spain for Tomas Luis de Victoria’s “O Magnum Mysterium” perhaps the closest thing this era has to a greatest hit.