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Heavenly Harmonies

Early Music reviews Heavenly Harmonies

David Trendell, Early Music (November 2008)

Stile Antico are very much the new kids on the block. Having been a prize-winner at the York Early Music Festival Young Artists’competition in 2005, they were snapped up by Harmonia Mundi. Heavenly Harmonies, featuring music by Tallis (the nine Psalm Tunes for Archbishop Parker’s Psalter) and a selection of motets from Byrd’s 1589 and 1591 Cantiones sacrae, is their second recording, following hot on the heels of a very successful debut CD ‘Music for Compline’. It is perhaps inevitable in the London early choral music world that everyone knows everyone else, and I had better come clean and say that three of the group sing in the choir of St Bartholomew the Great in London, which I direct, whilst another was in my choir at King’s College London as a Masters student. The most notable feature of the group is that they sing without a director. (Perhaps, having sung for me, they thought that such a figure is entirely dispensable.) However, that does not mean that the performances are directionless. There are some very fine musicians in this group and ones that have considerable experience as conductors: for example, Matthew O’Donovan, and Andrew Griffiths, who is currently a conductor on the Royal Opera House Young Artists programme. Nor are the other members of the group backward at coming forward and, from having spoken to them about their work, in the best traditions of chamber music-making, there is considerable discussion, with some degree of passion, about interpretative matters.

So how well do these performances succeed? The answer is, generally, very well indeed. Right from the opening track, Tallis’s third tone (the one that Vaughan Williams used as the basis of his Fantasia), there is an obvious attention to text (the word ‘fum’th’,for example) and dynamic contrast that seems unforced. Byrd’s Vigilate conveys the nervous expectation of the text, particularly in the piano reiterations of the opening word, and the changing moods. The piece is taken at quite a lick and there is some admirable vocal agility on display, especially at the rhythmically complex ‘ne cum veneris’ passage. Similarly, Laudibusin sanctis is full of verve. It is easy for the climax to happen  too soon in this most exuberant and optimistic of Byrd’s Cantiones and Stile Antico avoid that through careful dynamic contrast and sense of build-up. These are careful, considered performances, entirely conscious of the expressive potential, as well as theinterpretative pitfalls, of the music.

The performances of two of Byrd’s ‘Jerusalem’ motets—Ne irascaris and Tribulationes civitatum—show an awareness of the subtext of these pieces, especially when Byrd uses homophony to draw the Almighty’s attention to the plight of his people. Ne irascaris is perhaps the more successful performance; there is a great intensity of line (almost delightfully treacly) and also a revelling in the dense textures, especially Byrd’s use of 3rds in passages for the lowest three parts. The homophony at ‘Sion deserta est’ in the motet’s secunda pars is perfectly placed, and the remarkable build-up from the ethereal desolation at the beginning of the final point—‘Jerusalem desolata est’—to something more impassioned at its climax really does show the thought that has gone into these interpretations. The less well-known, but equally fine, Tribulationes civitatem is marginally less successful. The sense of urgency of the plight of the oppressed people is compromised less by a choice of a slightly turgid tempo than by a certain metrical doggedness and lack of fantasy in some remarkably supple vocal lines, and also at the wildly opulent cadence that concludes the secunda pars.

The performance of Infelix ego, mercifully sung at written pitch rather than the high transpositions of yore, also elects for a slow tempo. Stile Antico’s performance clocks in at a whopping 16’03”, compared to Jeremy Summerly’s 13’42” with the Oxford Camerata (and he can hardly be called a speed merchant) or 12’20”in the Tallis Scholars’ version. Whilst there is some beautiful singing here and a clear engagement with the piece, by choosing such a slow basic tempo, the performance inevitably fails to capture the urgency of Savonarola’s questions (‘Quoibo? Quo me vertam?’ etc.). It also mitigates against such clever passages as ‘cum oculos levare non audeo’,where Byrd capitalizes on the Latin construction by having an optimistic rising, major-key figure for the initial part of the sentence before being dashed by the minor-tinged falling figure reiterated for the verb ‘non audeo’ (‘Ido not dare lift my eyes to heaven’). The slow tempo also renders Byrd’s quicksilver, almost seismographic, contrasts of major/minor tonalities in a more plodding manner and the remorseless build-ups can sound forced. It also seems to detract from the final section where the earth-shattering A chord on ‘misericordiam’, that is usually such a blinding ray of light amid the general Savonarolian gloom, seems curiously subdued.

If such criticisms sound harsh, this is not the intention. Rather,it is to engage critically with a group’s work that is profoundly considered and serious. If I happen to disagree with the nature of some of their interpretations, it is at least because they have made me think through many relistenings, rather than hear a performance by more established groups that often sound as if they have been sight-read in the sessions, or perhaps in the rehearsal the day before. Stile Antico’s performances sound as if they have been lived-in and considered over a long period. Nor can one do anything but praise some of the simply gorgeous singing that one hears on this disc. I eagerly await their next recording of 16th-century settings of texts from the Song of Songs, hoping that it might have a slightly less naff title than ‘Heavenly harmonies’.