Friday, 11 December, 2020 at 6:00 pm - 7:00 pm
University Church, Oxford, United Kingdom
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Craig Zeichner, Ariama (12 November, 2012)
You certainly can’t accuse Stile Antico or the Harmonia Mundi label of trying to cash in on the current Christmas music season, because Passion and Resurrection features music for Holy Week and Easter. Stile Antico sings English, Spanish and Flemish Renaissance music, as well as a contemporary work by John McCabe on this album.
William Cornysh’s Woefully arrayed isn’t a liturgical work but a work for private devotion. Cornysh’s textures aren’t especially dense, but he uses dramatic affect and word painting with great power. Stile Antico’s clearly articulated singing communicates the intensity of the text well and makes for a moving performance. I don’t think there’s an ensemble singing English Renaissance music with as much conviction (they sound so “in” this music) and beauty as Stile Antico. Thankfully there are some gems by Tallis, Byrd, Taverner and Gibbons on the program. Two chestnuts, Taverner’s Dum transisset and Gibbons’ Hosanna to the son of David, are superbly sung with glowing color in the top line of the Taverner and a fine rhythmic pulse in the Gibbons.
Spanish composers seem to raise their game when it comes to Lenten and Easter music and there are three wonderful works by Morales, Victoria and Guerrero on the recording. The achingly long lines of Morales’ O Crux ave are beautifully shaped, but that super intense payoff at the motet’s conclusion comes up a scratch short. Victoria’s O vos omnes with its El Greco-shaded dissonances comes off a bit too prettily too, but there’s such precision in the singing that you can’t help but be swept up in the performance. The Guerrero Easter motet Maria Magdalene is a gloriously joyous performance that rivals the great recordings of the Tallis Scholars and Cardinall’s Musick.
The surprise of the album is John McCabe’s setting of John Skelton’s text Woefully arrayed. McCabe colors the piece with plenty of 21st century touches, including pained dissonances and odd rhythms. Placed in the program as a bookend to Cornysh’s setting of the same text, and serving as a climax to the Holy week music, McCabe’s piece packs power but doesn’t quite jell with what precedes or follows. Nonetheless, Stile Antico sing the daylights out of it and sparked my interest into hearing more from the composer.
This is an outstanding recording on every level. Faultlessly produced and engineered by the Harmonia Mundi team of Robina Young and Brad Michel, it’s an album that consistently moves the heart and delights the ear, even during these weeks before Advent and Christmas.