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Music for Compline

Opera Today praises Music for Compline

Steven Plank, Opera Today (19 September, 2007)

The liturgy of Compline marks the end of the monastic day, as the community seeks peaceful repose for the night ahead.

While the monastic context may be generally unfamiliar, bits of Compline material resurface in Anglican evensong (the canticle Nunc dimittis, for instance) and the liturgy of Compline itself has taken on considerable popularity in some modern circles. St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle, for example, has offered Compline on Sunday nights since 1954, and attracts huge crowds both in the Cathedral and on radio.

On this present disc, the marvelous English vocal ensemble, Stile Antico, performs sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century music for this rite by Tudor composers, both well-known (Tallis, Byrd, and Sheppard) and less familiar (Robert Whyte and Hugh Aston). The singing is simply extraordinary. Mindful of the intimate and reflective nature of the rite, Stile Antico allows phrases to unfold in an unhurried manner, and when soft, as in the opening salve nos of Sheppard’s “Libera nos” or the beginning of Tallis’s “Miserere nostri” the effect is exquisite and sublime. The soft is never an “undersung” volume, but full of presence. Heard here, this expressive dynamic begins to do for the sound what candlelight does for the sight, enveloping things with an aura of intimacy. And this is very compelling.

Much here is tinged with serenity. Even with contrapuntal complexity, such as in Tallis’s canonic “Miserere nostri,” the affective context of words and liturgy alike combine to keep things focused on repose. In this case, sweetly so. The final antiphon, Hugh Aston’s “Gaude virgo mater Christi,” is of a different stripe. Chronologically Aston is of an earlier generation, born twenty years before Tallis and over fifty years before Byrd. His musical language in the antiphon is sinuously melismatic with sensuous ascents of the trebles, in the echo at least of the decorated style early in the century. This, the large scale of the antiphon, and its extra-liturgical nature—Marian antiphons were often sung at the close of the evening office—set the antiphon apart from the rest of the program. But if occasionally more splendid, it nevertheless seems also within the “aura,” as well, as much a blossoming of that which has preceded as a contrast to it.

This is surely one of the best early music recordings of the year. It will certainly have pride of place on many a shelf.