Music for Compline receives the Diapason d’Or
David Fiala, Diapason (February 2007)
They may have chosen to call themselves Stile Antico, but these thirteen singers strike a real blow for youth amongst the venerable English tradition of a cappella vocal groups. The ensemble is in the Tallis Scholars mould – a mixed choir coloured by a male alto, with impeccable tuning and intense collective listening. But as well as the invigorating youthfulness of their voices, they distinguish themselves by singing without a director. Their sonority and musical intentions only seem the more subtle and spontaneous in the absence of the slightly driven quality sometimes induced by a conductor.
With a magnificent tonal palette and bold choices of dynamics (pianissimo subito and sempre crescendo for the great two-minute Amen with which the disc ends), the interpretation is remarkably cohesive and inventive. The recording is skilfully organised around the theme of Compline. For this final office of the Catholic liturgical day, each of the great masters gathered here creates, in his own way, the atmosphere of protection and reassurance which wards off the fears and phantoms of the approaching night. This meditative and comforting mood draws together a varied programme of works by the holy trinity of English Polyphony: Sheppard, Tallis and Byrd. The disc first brings together their settings of brief evening prayers. Meditative and largely homophonic (though not lacking in Tallis’ striking harmonic sleight-of-hand, as in the final cadence of track 5), these culminate in two Misereres, in which Byrd and Tallis compete in the art of six- and seven-part counterpoint.
The end of the album offers more substantial pieces, concluding with the whimsical tracery of the little-known Hugh Aston, truly in the spirit of the flamboyant English Gothic. At the close of this rich office, the spell is such that we are convinced, in the words of Baudelaire, the twilight poet par excellence, that “the world falls asleep in a warm light”.