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RecordingsIn a Strange Land

Classical Iconoclast first to review of ‘In A Strange Land’

Classical Iconoclast (11 December, 2018)

“In a Strange Land” – Elizabethan Composers in Exile, new from Stile Antico on Harmonia Mundi, featuring the works of English composers forced into exile during the Reformation. “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill.”  These verses, from Psalm 137, provide the text for William Byrd’s Quomodo cantabimus, and serve as a reninder that the composers featured, John Dowland, William Byrd,  Peter Philips, Robert White and Richard Dering, had to adapt to situations where the connection between State and Church put them in a position where their faith could be challenged.

This recording begins with the John Dowland ayre for lute Flow my tears(1596),presented here by Stile Antico in a consort arrangement, the descending lacrimae motif recreated by the voices.  Dowland, who became a Catholic while in Paris in his late teens, believed that his religion stood in the way of  success at the Elizabethan Court, but was later employed by King James I. William Byrd, on the other hand, was favoured by Queen Elizabeth I, though he was recusant and had to tread carefully. His Cantiones sacrae of 1589, from which is taken Tristitia et anxietas, where semi-tonal inflections add richness and depth.  Even more resplendent is Byrd’s eight-part motet Quomodo cantabimus. As Matthew O’Donovan writes “that three of its eight voice parts (form) an ingenious canon by inversion was doubtless intended to reassure the outside world that music was alive and well amongst England’s persecuted Catholics”, given that the English exiles had neither forgotten their faith nor their homeland.  The esnsemble blends beautifully, so the harmonies seem to glow.  Based on the Lamentations of Jeremiah in the Old Testament, the Lamentation of Robert White (1543-1574), could also allude to faith in times of turmoil.  In this version, for five voices, the polyphonic textures evoke the sacred music of the Catholic Church.  On the document which serves as source , there is a Latin inscription which reads “Wine and music make the heart glad”.  This could refer to the musical merits of the piece, but also act as cover for its coded religious meaning.

Richard Dering (1580-1630) was able to return to England in the last years of his life as organist to Henrietta Maria, the wife of King Charles I.  HisFactum et silentium is a dramatic motet with strongly defined rhythms. An ecstatic  performance responding to the text “A voice was heard, a thousand upon a thousand fold….Alleluia !”.  Peter Philips (1560/1-1628) spent most of his life in the Catholic Low Countries.  His Gaude Maria virgo employs counterpoint, while in his Regina caeli laetare  the voices are used in cadence, reflecting the influence of Gabrieli or Monteverdi.   Stile antico  is of course greatly respected for Renaissance and early baroque, but also ventures into modern territory. Huw Watkins’s The Phoenix and the Turtle (2014) was commissioned by Nicholas and Judith Goodison for Stile Antico.  Shakespeare’s poem describes the funerals of two birds : the dove symbolizing fidelity, the phoenix  idealism that cannot be destroyed by fire.  Could it be interpreted as a cryptic message ? Watkins’s setting pits vigorous rhythms against slower passages, and ends in unison.