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Heavenly Harmonies

Diapason d’Or for Heavenly Harmonies

Roger Tellart, Diapason (April 2008)

A single recording would have been enough for the instantly-recognizable sound and character of Stile Antico to take their place amongst the best mixed-voice Renaissance ensembles.  This marvel, Music for Compline, greeted with the Diapason d’or de l’année, is now followed by a garland of Heavenly Harmonies, shared between Tallis and Byrd.  The division is unequal but apt to the contrast between the Protestant and Catholic music of Elizabethan England: brief Tallis settings of psalms from the metrical psalter of the Anglican Archbishop Parker are interpolated between sumptuous Byrd motets on his chosen texts.  An anguished prayer by Savonarola inspired his highly unusual Infelix ego, a penitential monument of more than sixteen minutes which resonates with the sorry plight of the Catholics.

The young ensemble’s expressive choices always follow the sense of the text, carried along by a fervour and sensibility which recalls the expressiveness of the Monteverdi choir rather than the formality of the Tallis Scholars and the predominant English tradition, and which makes up for the fact that Gardiner has focused so little on this repertoire.  Except that here there is no conductor – only an investment from each singer, and an admirable collective listening.  And here too the twelve voices achieve an exceptional depth of sound (recalling the Huelgas Ensemble) by an unusual means: they are grouped not by line, but in the manner of madrigalists: here a soprano, an alto, a tenor, then another soprano, a bass, and so on.  The voices respond and intermingle with each other subtlety of colour and striking dynamic gradations. Ne irascaris domine achieves a hitherto unseen rhetorical impact, which makes the old performances by Pro Cantiones Antiqua and New College Oxford seem quite humdrum.

We can only admire the generous young people of Stile Antico, and the vision of the producer who backed this ensemble at such an early stage.  In their hands, polyphony lives and breathes, declaims, rejoices, implores, dares expansive phrases and powerful crescendos, sustained at every moment by irresistible feeling.