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Heavenly Harmonies

MusicWeb International names Heavenly Harmonies CD of the Month

Michael Greenhalgh, MusicWeb International (April 2008)

This juxtaposition of Tallis and Byrd isn’t as much of a shotgun wedding as it may first look. The Tallis English psalm tunes are fairly spare in line but subtle rhythmic and harmonic variations keep the attention. The Byrd Latin motets have a similarly firm structure but the broader canvas allows for more variety and elaboration. This CD begins with Tallis’s most familiar tune; the one Vaughan Williams used for his Fantasia. Stile Antico accord it a zealous approach of appreciable density and therefore inherent fire and commanding progression. The surround sound brings clarity even within All Hallows Gospel Oak’s very glowing acoustic. I compared the Chapelle du Roi/Alistair Dixon recording made in 2000 (Signum SIGCD 022). Slightly faster, 0:51 against 0:56, Dixon brings more edge and drama but with less revealing of the harmonies than Stile Antico whose greater elasticity accommodates the text more.

Byrd’s motet Vigilate (tr. 2) is displayed by Stile Antico as a breathtaking tour de force. There’s excitement and urgency in the opening command ‘Vigilate’, ‘Watch out’, a light opening start to the imitation of cockcrow at ‘an gallicantu’ (1:07) which grows energetically to a climax as it’s taken up by all parts. Then there’s enjoyment from 2:08 of the sheer flourish of the fastest rhythms of the motet at ‘repente’ to indicate suddenly. The picture of the sleepers, ‘dormientes’ (2:30) slinks lightly.

Tallis’s ‘E’en like the hunted hind’, gets from Stile Antico a smooth and comely rippling line, a slight fade on ‘fainting’ (tr. 3 0:18), appropriately firmer ‘to thee would fain aspire’ which becomes a springboard for a more emphatic, open tone at ‘life and grace’ (0:38) and climactic affirmation ‘It said e’en thus’. Byrd’s Ne irascaris Domine (tr. 4) opens richly with Stile Antico’s lower voice tone, the second tenor part sung by baritones. The cries for help, ‘Ecce’ (1:50) begin firmly but respectfully, expand as they cumulate in the parts and finally soften pleadingly. Stile Antico find a hauntingly wan quality for ‘facta est deserta’ (5:07), ‘has become a wilderness’ and ‘Sion deserta’ is the more expressive for its soft presentation. The soft call to ‘Jerusalem’ begins with a hopeful ascent but across this the descending ‘desolata est’ is layered emotively from 7:20, a facing up to reality.

Tallis’s ‘Let God arise’ is presented with fuller tone for its declaration of God’s majesty. An even firmer manner characterizes Byrd’s Exsurge Domine (tr. 6) with the sopranos’ ‘quare obdormis?’ (0:23) and the following melisma on ‘Domine’ here more reproof than question but ‘et ne repellas me’ (0:47), ‘and don’t reject me’ is a soft-grained plea which becomes more confident as the motif is repeated and cumulated in the parts. This technique is also applied to the delineation of distress, ‘et tribulationes nostrae’, the melismata here providing a multi-layered picture.

Tallis’s ‘Expend, O Lord’ has a sober uprightness aiming for integrity. Byrd’s Infelix ego (tr. 8) is a sustained exploration of guilt. The first time all six parts operate, at ‘Ad quem confugiam?’ (1:28), ‘To whom shall I flee?’ you experience a shudder at the alarmed outcry. At 3:21 all parts come together expressively again at ‘quia ei graviter peccavi’ to acknowledge the extensiveness of their transgression and similarly that the sinner has become a stumbling-block at ‘quia ei scandalum fui’ (4:36), though the rapid descending notes on ‘fui’ are smoothed over somewhat at this measured tempo. The second part (5:31) is glowingly affirmative in the repetitions of ‘imaginem suum’ (8:07), his own image which God won’t reject, every appearance in every part like that of a new face. The third part (9:12) is notable for the moving quality of the sopranos floating over the penitential texture, firstly at ‘tu solus refugiam meum’ (10:11), ‘you alone my refuge’. In the closing section the wide range of the full six-part texture at the close on ‘misericordiam tuam’ (15:04) makes for a graphic expression of the vastness of the mercy sought.

Tallis’s tune for ‘God grant with grace’ is still in hymnbooks today as the Tallis canon, but the original here, nicely sustained, is airily contemplative and ethereal. Byrd’s Laetentur coeli (tr. 10) begins with pealing madrigalian flourishes which give way to more earnest articulation at ‘quia Dominus noster veniat’ (0:52), ‘because our Lord will come’ and a tender picture of mercy for the poor, ‘et pauperum suorum’ (1:08).

‘Man blest no doubt’ is in Stile Antico’s hands a strange but effective combination of sobriety and serenity. In Byrd’s Quis est homo (tr. 12) Stile Antico revel in the vibrancy of rising entries at ‘vitam’, echoing between the parts and the assurance of falling ones on ‘diligit dies’. The second part (2:07) is more gently persuasive and with an aching beauty to the regret of its close. I compared the 2006 recording by The Cardinall’s Musick/Andrew Carwood (Hyperion CDA67568). Carwood is pacier, taking 6:19 against Stile Antico’s 7:13, with one voice to a part clarity and relative objectivity, very fluent and ‘in the moment’. Stile Antico, though rhythmically less crisp, articulate the text more expressively, aided by more dynamic contrast, and bring more sense of the overall span of the piece.

‘Come Holy Ghost’, is chaste and finely balanced. For Byrd’s Mass Propers for Pentecost Stile Antico add an extra soprano to luminous effect, notably when all five parts enter at ‘replevit orbem terrarum’ in Spiritus Domini (tr. 14 0:10) to depict the spirit filling the whole earth. In total contrast Confirma hoc Deus is contemplative, stately and adoring, crowned by two serene soprano parts. Factus est repente (tr. 16) relishes a lively picture of mighty wind, ‘spiritus vehementis’ (0:17), very dramatic.

‘Why brag’st in malice’ by Tallis is straightforward in manner and lucid in presentation. Byrd’s Tribulationes civitatem (tr. 18) is similarly so but on an extended, dramatized level, ‘quas passae sunt’ (0:56) a plain of repeated notes acknowledging with the understanding of experience sorrows borne. The bold motif of ‘ipsi montes’ (5:08), ‘even the mountains’ is vividly contrasted with the flowing descents on ‘fugam’ (5:22), ‘flight’, where a slightly quicker tempo would make the point more. But the measured tempo is just right for the plea ‘Aperi oculos tuos, Domine’ (8:04), ‘Open your eyes, Lord’, starting gently but becoming more earnest with searing emphasis on ‘afflictionem nostram’, ‘our affliction’, very concentrated yet human penitence.

‘O come in one to praise the Lord’ is given forthright treatment with eager progression and bloom. The same applies to Byrd’s Laudibus in sanctis (tr. 20), its joy typified by the booming bass entry at ‘Laude Dei’ (1:26) enthusiastically repeated by the other parts. The closing Hallelujah chorus is a shimmeringly articulated peal before the parts take turns in blazing the motif ‘tempus in omne’ across the texture.

This CD is a knockout. Sensitive expression of the texts is paramount. With two to three voices to a part there’s an appreciable sense of shaping which comes from Stile Antico creating the interpretation as an ensemble without conductor. You won’t find a better demonstration of just how beautiful and yet also powerful these pieces are.