Wednesday, 20 December, 2023 at 8:00 pm
De Bijloke, Ghent, Belgium
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Fritz Balwit, Audiophile Audition (11 February, 2017)
There are a number of first-rate a capella vocal groups specializing in Renaissance polyphony. Their virtues are the same: balance, purity of voice, the finest feeling for drama. The groups are supported by deep scholarship (evidenced in this recording by the substantial liner-notes, a veritable treatise on the late Renaissance) as well as superb sound engineering. Stile Antico is without doubt among the very best of our generation in this genre, having delivered a flawless series of polyphonic masterpieces in interesting programs. They differ from their peers in one attractive feature: they have no conductor. The picture on the disc back shows a group of 12 (one to take the picture?) in a circle, the emblem of completeness and balance.
The sonics of all Stile Antico Super-Audio recordings place the listener inside this magic circle, reposed, perhaps, on a yoga mat. One is serenely shrouded in the radiant weave of voices. There is a pneumatic glow from the bottom and spine-tingling timbres from the top. Somehow the voices manage to blend without losing individuality. At times, it is distinctly human utterance, and then at other times, it magically dissolves into pure disembodied sound, especially at its slowest moments.
The original purposes of this music as a vehicle for the liturgy of the Church have long been replaced. Most people turn to this music for an experience of serene relaxation. Perhaps for those who can access the original metaphysical premise of the music, there is an added potency to the experience. In any case, there is no doubt that the wide appeal of Renaissance polyphony is based on an exceptional artistic achievement in music, and that it will communicate in many different ways to listeners.
What we have here in a number of sacred motets by Giaches De Wert is a final point of articulation of this tradition. By 1600, four years after his death, we have a convenient break-off point. Liturgical music, as the dominant form of art, would give way to the secular madrigal, the chanson, and eventually, to the aria. The instruments would arrive, along with texts inspired by the new spirituality of the Counter-Reformation, but also by pastoral and classical literary traditions.
Giaches De Wert, from his position at the court of Mantua, was a part of this transformation. Indeed, he resided at the court with Monteverdi, the main figure in the evolution of the early Baroque by way of the madrigal. I expected this recording to document this moment of “hybridization” with new and old jostled together. Instead, we have motets that look back to the style of Palestrina. If there is some word-painting and dramatisation, it is contained within the decorum of the old-school; there is little of the feeling of experimentation that one hears in his madrigals.
The motets are based on New Testament texts rather than on the liturgy of the mass. This involves an new sort of freight for the listener. The Kyries and Credos of the old school are so familiar and stylized as to have become pure particles of sound with no syntactic obligations. However, here we have longish texts from the Gospels, Romans and even the Apocrypha. At the very least, these texts will present new challenges for the listener as well as a chance to dust off your Latin with the help of the liner-notes.
It is hard to identify particular moments in these motets, which are exquisitely wrought to be sure, but fairly conventional. However, even a newcomer to the genre might be able to recognize the cleverness of the rhetoric in the Egressus, Jesu in which a lower-voiced group (Jesus) plays off the higher-voiced group (Caananite women) while the tenor sings in both quartets. With patience, one might be able to discern all seven voices at once, surely at the extremity of what can be consciously processed. There is also a motet for eight voices, treating of a Jesus/ Saul encounter, which has a vertiginous feeling akin to the elaborate music of Thomas Tallis. Like Saul on his way to Damascus, one is certainly dazzled by bright lights and heavenly voices, yet we are just barely able to make it to the end of this shortest motet in terms of concentration.
The rewards of this outstanding disc are double. On one hand, one is presented with the marvel of High Polyphony performed to perfection. On the other hand, there is a feeling that new doors have been opened. There are restless little shifts in mood, heightened passages which surely pertain to the new texts (which I gave up reading half-way through.) It is like a rumor of Spring. Monteverdi and all the magnificence of the new worldly celebration of the Baroque is just around the corner, and yet we still have our bearings in a splendid world that makes perfect sense.