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RecordingsDivine Theatre on ‘Divine Theatre’

James Manheim,

Giaches de Wert lived from 1535 to 1596, from the high point of Renaissance polyphony to the beginning of the great changes to come, and his life was devoted to music: he was sent to Italy as a singer when he was young, and as a composer he circulated among the noble families whose patronage stimulated new developments in Italian music. His life was an eventful one — not as eventful as that of Carlo Gesualdo, but in the same league — and was arguably reflected in his highly expressive madrigals, which are his best-known works. The a cappella sacred motets recorded here are staples of university Renaissance courses, but have not received attention, until now, from top-notch performers. They are not dark and penitent like Gesualdo’s sacred works, but are skillful fusions of High Renaissance polyphony with expressive, madrigalesque devices of various kinds, present in varying degrees. For a taste of confidently handled chromaticism, sample Vox in Rama audita est, and for sheer pictorialism of a kind that few composers of the 16th century could match, try Ascendente Jesu in naviculam (Jesus climbed into the boat, a setting of Matthew 8:23-26, describing Jesus and his disciples in a storm at sea). This motet is characteristic of Wert’s work in that it sets New Testament texts directly, a phenomenon explored in the useful booklet notes by Matthew O’Donovan. The music in its own time would have been sung by boys, but it’s hard to complain about the performances from the small, mixed-gender, adult English choir Stile Antico, which seem to penetrate to the expressive heart of the music. This group has shown a knack for choosing unusual Renaissance programs that illuminate the deeper concerns of the music. Add in gloriously clear and perfectly idiomatic sound from London’s All Hallows Church, and the end result is a superior album of Renaissance sacred music, featuring pieces new to most listeners; in its first months of release it has been rightly rewarded with commercial success.