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Music for Compline

High praise from the American Choral Journal

James L. Queen, American Choral Journal (May 2007)

Stile Antico is a remarkable new British ensemble of thirteen mixed voices. Their debut disc with Harmonia Mundi, released in January, has already generated accolades such as “staggeringly beautiful,” “perfectly intoned,” “tonal luster near perfection,” and “profound delicacy.”

Composers represented include Hugh Aston, Thomas Tallis, John Sheppard, Robert White, and William Byrd—all musicians who lived in the tumultuous era of Tudor England. The music is appropriate for the Office of Compline, final service of the canonical hours prior to retiring. And since that office was later absorbed into Evening Prayer or Evensong, these compositions are representative of earlier practice and are in Latin. Motets, hymns, responsories, a canticle, and three plainchant antiphons have been arranged in a sequence that creates an air of religiosity and reverence quite like that of an actual Compline service, at nine in the evening, in a vaulted cathedral.

The singing is amazing. Tone quality is consistent. Tuning is flawless. But the most defining characteristic of this ensemble’s singing is their ability to render phrase-lines in clear definition. Each line swells effortlessly to its peak and subsides as another line begins its journey. One has a sense that the ensemble itself is inhaling and exhaling, always in a measured, controlled fashion, producing nothing jagged. But within that control, Stile Antico creates an intensity of forward musical motion that is breath-taking.

The singers perform as a chamber ensemble without a conductor, each member contributing artistically to the result. Stile Antico has made its own editions from collected works and anthologies which are available in many libraries. (Unfortunately their editions remain unpublished at this time.)

Matthew O’Donovan’s extensive liner notes provide an exceptional guide to the music, the composers, and their world. His essay is organized by composer, not by the order of the music on the disc, which requires a bit of searching while listening. German, English, and French translations of the Latin texts are provided, while descriptive notes are given in English with translations in German and French.

Experienced choral conductors will revel in this wonderfully exciting music, and younger conductors will find in this performance a virtual manual on how to sing music from this era.