Friday, 11 December, 2020 at 6:00 pm - 7:00 pm
University Church, Oxford, United Kingdom
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Steven Ritter, Audiophile Audition (31 October, 2012)
If its one thing Harmonia mundi is good at, it’s signing terrific new choral groups to the stable. One only has to look at Anonymous 4 to see the beginnings of a phenomenal track record, and of course there are many others as well, almost too many to mention. Stile Antico is one of the latest, a top flight British group that has now completed its seventh recording for the company, each and every one prodding critics to incessant amounts of drool, and garnering all sorts of awards. The latest offering is special indeed, focusing on the entire western holy week, starting with Palm Sunday and ending up in the celebration of a very bright resurrection indeed.
The twelve composers on this recording hail from the English, Flemish, and Spanish Renaissance. All three countries are hardly absent from recordings of music from this period these days, and all three are representative of probably the best choral music that this period in history has to offer. In England the large number of composers was matched only by the large number of styles that seemed to appear as well. This should not be too much of a surprise as that country went through a hellish period of religious ping pong, with composers like William Byrd and (even more) Thomas Tallis having to adapt and manage all sorts of liturgical and theological constructs in order to survive, let alone thrive, which, amazingly, both did, Tallis weeding his way through four religiously disparate monarchs and producing the phenomenally beautiful O sacrum convivium, sung with great affection here.
On the continent we have more stylistic uniformity (primarily due to the fact that these composers got around more). But there are differences, and one only has to sample a few bars of Cristolbal de Morales’s O crux, ave or his student Francisco Guerrero’s Maria Magdalene to detect not only intensity, but a more smiling disposition when it comes to projecting the involved and complex variants of the holy week story. But with the Flemish composers we get more involved harmonic complexities and passion found in the guise of soaring, involved melodic lines and sudden dramatic shifts of harmony, like those found in Jean Lheritier’s Surrexit pastor bonus.
But this recital seems to have a piece rather than a composer at its heart: Woefully arrayed, a song as opposed to a church composition set by William Cornysh the younger (we think—his identity gets confused by a lot of historians who have yet to really clarify) whose music is devotional and much more simple than the rest of the pieces on this disc. However, it also opens the recital, and halfway through we are treated to an original composition by modern composer John McCabe. He alters the words somewhat, making the text neither fully modernist nor fully traditional, but as his music seems to require at the moment. His setting dwarfs that of Cornysh in terms of severity; the one questionable element here is that fact that McCabe’s work does invoke the proverbial “sore thumb” in terms of the whole of this recital—you know when you hit it and it’s not like anything else. But it also is precisely like everything else in many ways, and even the half note harmonies and floating lines transport us to the Flemish world more to any other with its seriousness of purpose and unrelenting focus on the musical marrow of the holy week services. In the end, it works, even though all logic tells us is really shouldn’t, and the piece is simply adorable.
The recorded sound, caught at All Hallows’ Church in London, is brilliantly splashy in the best sense of the word, the many strands floating above our heads in wonderful surround sound, fiercely explosive in the broad dynamic range and yet quietly introspective when the music calls for it. The performances are second to none, rivetingly presented with all the skill of master musicians who have been doing this for years—the miracle is that they are all young, and yet still are able to penetrate the essence of these wonderful works. Need I say more?