Gramophone relishes ‘Divine Theatre’
Edward Breen, Gramophone (April, 2017)
The Flemish-born composer Giaches de Wert (1535 96), famous for being Monteverdi’s predecessor at Mantua, is perhaps best remembered today for his madrigals and the splendid motet Vox in Rama. This album selects motets from books 2 and 3 (both printed in 1581), and elucidates a composer who skilfully blends formal polyphonic writing with the madrigalian arts.
Stile Antico also skilfully blend these two styles: in Hoc enim sentite in vobis the contrast between the stately first half and the impassioned second half may be more subtle than from Collegium Regale (Signum, 12/08) but it enhances the delicious setting of ‘caelestium, terrestrium’ (heaven and earth) as sopranos waft heavenwards. This is an important glimpse of Wert’s genius for embedding striking word painting within the poignant and devout textures of sacred music. Importantly, the way Stile Antico accommodate these different modes with ease marks this album as special. They phrase with purpose and animate texts but never compromise their beautiful warm blend. Previously I have felt they overly prioritise poise at the expense of expressive irregularities, but here a crack in their conservative façade allows delicious moments to shine through.
The astonishingly vivid Ascendente Jesu in naviculum, which tells of Jesus and his disciples at sea in a storm, probably best showcases Stile Antico’s extrovert potential. Alongside this, a magnificent if rather statuesque performance of Vox in Rama offers a refined and sonorous approach characterised by the slow, soporific atmospheres that Stile Antico often favour in continental polyphony. It is testament to Wert’s emotional immediacy that this album is one of their most engaging recordings: polyphony to grab one’s attention rather than to carpet a devotional daydream.