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Heavenly Harmonies

AllMusic reviews Heavenly Harmonies

James Manheim, AllMusic (March 2008)

The Heavenly Harmonies title of this disc might lead buyers to expect a general collection of sacred music, but in fact the program represents a unique juxtaposition of English Renaissance masters who are generally presented separately. One by one, the music alternates between Thomas Tallis’ English-language Nine Psalm Tunes for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter – the very essence of severe Anglican homophony – and the recusant Catholic William Byrd’s richly expressive, inward motets and Mass Propers for Pentecost. The styles, as bass Matthew O’Donovan put it in the booklet, “may seem rather like chalk and cheese.” Yet what the leaderless singers of the young British group Stile Antico are trying to show is that these composers inhabited a common universe even if ecclesiastical authorities did not. Tallis did not write plain chorale-like pieces but rather strove to create polyphony on a small, memorable scale. And Byrd, apparently deciding there was no reason the devil should have all the good tunes, adopted, especially in the music heard here, devices from the Anglican style when he wanted to express strong, individual spiritual emotion. Stile Antico’s performances are ideal. For one thing, in music whose key characteristic is its response to text, the group articulates the words so clearly that you can understand every word of the English (and the Latin, if you’ve got it — and all texts are given in English, Latin, French, and German in the booklet). And they sing the words with the expression the composers intended. Sample Byrd’s anguished Infelix ego (Unhappy am I), set to a text by Italian radical Girolamo Savonarola of 100 years before Byrd’s time: the sequence of questions, “Where shall I go?,” “Where shall I turn?,” To whom shall I flee?,” “Who will have pity on me?” have an impact rarely matched among Renaissance recordings. The sound is marvelously clear, far beyond the norm for this kind of thing, and one is left wishing for more recording data — beyond a photo caption referring to a recording session at church, there is none. This is a top-notch job all around that can be recommended equally to collectors of English choral music and listeners just beginning to understand the style worlds of Renaissance music.