Thursday, 4 March, 2021 at 7:30 pm - 8:30 pm
St Martin-in-the-Fields: Fresh Horizons
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Steven Ritter, Audiophile Audition (31 January, 2007)
It is so very gratifying to see companies with the reputation of Harmonia mundi still turning out SACDs, while some of the majors seem to be abandoning the format. Or perhaps they are waiting and re-evaluating, I don’t know. I do know that some are now looking at DTS and similar formats, so perhaps the future is not too bleak, but the public gets tired quickly of having to continually adjust to new formats, especially when it means changing equipment. Super Audio is a marvel, but truth be told, is only what CDs should have been in the first place.
The hesitancy is probably coming from the now vast array of downloading possibilities from all sorts of sources, something that is quite tempting to those that have been convinced that they need portable music with them everywhere they go. For classical listeners I suppose that this is something each individual has to decide (I listen in the car in spurts), but the quality of audio has always gone hand in hand with the appreciation of great music. Classical music is simply too complex to be dismissed as a canned format, and the general assumption is that those who take the time to listen intelligently (meaning in a quiet, undisturbed environment) also are interested in the best possible reproduction that is financially viable and available. For the buck-a-song crowd who are used to hearing music in a more utilitarian fashion, these concerns are not as great, and the money to be made from such is far greater than that required for fine audio.
Hopefully there will be room for both when all is said and done, because certain music requires, even demands a special tonal ambiance. The album at hand is a good example of this. The service of Compline in the western church (and eastern) is a night office that is full of penitential hymns and reminders of the Great Judgment. It is not noisy, overly-loud or particularly demonstrable. But it is full of many subtleties and pieties that can’t be appreciated when flying down a mall sidewalk with an iPod strapped to your hip. It requires almost the same setting as where it is chanted, a church-like quiet in order to take in its many felicities and emotional substance. And when further study enlightens you that the English composers represented here were almost all Catholics straddling the religious divide in an ever-confused time period in English history, remaining Catholic while also writing even for the newly-devised Protestant Church, you might want to listen even more carefully. Many of the psalms were chosen by the composers for reasons of expediency, so that some Latin verses were allowed while others denied because of theological reasons or a too close association with the Roman office (The English church would subsume Compline into its Evening Prayer a few years later). It was a real tightrope walk being a composer in those days!
Stile Antico is relatively new British ensemble on the scene that sings with marvelous understanding and sympathy, and manifests a tonal quality that sounds a lot like the Tallis Scholars, but with more emotional heart. Perhaps the youngish age of most of the thirteen performers contributes to this—they also are keen on vibrant performances and do much educational work. However they do it, the fact is that their blend and tonal luster is near perfection, and this album, with its glorious cathedral-like surround sound is a perfect foundation recording for music of the pre-reformation English church. The excellent notes and fine presentation only add to its desirability.