Early Music America fetes Media Vita
Beth Adelman, Early Music America (9 September, 2010)
It’s been more than 20 years since the Tallis Scholars recorded the dense, hypnotic antiphon Media vita by John Sheppard (c.1515-1558). It was a groundbreaking recording at the time. This disc by the young British group Stile Antico is no less so – in part because it is a sign that the torch has passed to a younger generation of singers.
Media Vita is the fourth CD from this amazing, Grammy-nominated group of six women and eight men. Their albums have been charting on Billboard, they toured with Sting as part of his John Dowland project, and they have won a host of prizes. They perform without a conductor and they reconstruct and prepare their own performing editions. Critics have been falling over themselves to praise Stile Antico’s tone, blend, intensity, style, dynamics, phrasing, insight, historical sense – just about everything that makes an early music vocal group great – and I willingly join that heap. In fact, this CD is extremely difficult to review because it is, well, perfect. Even the engineering is perfect – just the right amount of natural reverb and slow decay on the sound.
Media Vita, the antiphon, is Sheppard’s 25-minute plea for a peaceful demise (it begins, “In the midst of live, we are in death”). It’s an intense, wickedly difficult piece. The beginning, in particular, is so dense that is washes over you in waves, almost like a group of Tibetan monks chanting. As sung by Stile Antico, you are transported inside the music, swept up by its transcendence.
The CD also includes three English anthems, a setting of The Lord’s Prayer, and a latin responsory (Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria virgo) and hymn (Te Deum). In each, Stile Antico cuts to the heart of the text and music, presenting both aspects perfectly sung, perfectly felt, perfect in every way.