Thursday, 4 March, 2021 at 7:30 pm - 8:30 pm
St Martin-in-the-Fields: Fresh Horizons
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John Quinn, MusicWeb International (28 December, 2012)
This is the third disc from Stile Antico to come my way for review. Just over a year ago I was deeply impressed by their wonderful album of Tudor Christmas music, Puer natus est. Subsequently, I reviewed their last disc, Tune thy Musicke to thy Hart, and whilst, purely as a matter of subjective taste, I wasn’t quite as carried away by all the repertoire on that programme I admired, nonetheless, the consistently very high performance standards. Now they’re back with another collection of pieces of Renaissance polyphony recorded at their usual venue, All Hallows’ Church, Gospel Oak. The pieces they’ve chosen are all for Holy Week and Easter.
Unusually for this group, I believe, the disc includes a piece of contemporary music in the shape of John McCabe’s Woefully arrayed. This was commissioned by the Three Choirs Festival and premièred by Stile Antico at the 2009 Festival in Hereford. I’m often struck by how well a good piece of contemporary music can sit with pre-Classical music and this is a case in point, for McCabe’s is a good piece. He’s deliberately chosen to set the same words that William Cornysh used some five centuries earlier, namely three verses from a poem whose author is unknown but may have been John Skelton (1460-1529). The words offer a meditation on the Crucifixion and are written as if they had been spoken by the crucified Christ himself. McCabe’s setting is unified by a motif to which the title words are set. At the start this is heard as jagged, stabbing music and at each subsequent appearance we hear a variant on that treatment. The textures are often spare and the writing is economical of means – as was Cornysh’s setting. Often McCabe’s music is, fittingly, stark and uncompromising with gritty harmonic language. It’s a powerful and effective piece, which receives a committed and sensitive performance here for its first recording. Stile Antico customarily perform without a conductor and I would imagine that, as a result, this piece must present particular challenges though you’d never know from hearing their assured delivery of it.
The setting of the same words by William Cornysh, which opens the programme, is rather unusual in that it’s not as ornate in style as other pieces by him that I’ve heard. Matthew O’Donovan, a member of Stile Antico, explains that in his very useful notes: this was a devotional ‘carol’, designed for domestic performance, he says. Hence, like some of the pieces on the group’s album, Tune thy Musicke to thy Hart, it’s more direct in expression and simpler in style than a piece of church music might have been.
The remainder of the programme includes music by English, Flemish and Iberian composers. Among the English contributions Tallis’s O sacrum convivium stands out. It’s a wonderful, serene anthem to the Blessed Sacrament. The performance by Stile Antico is notable for the exemplary control, not least of line, which the singers exhibit. I love the way they build the intensity of piece very naturally. Even better, if one may compare miniature masterpieces, is Taverner’s Dum transisset. In my humble opinion this glorious piece is one of the most exquisite examples of Tudor polyphony. Stile Antico convey the gentle ecstasy of Taverner’s inspired setting in one of the most perfect renditions of it that I can recall hearing.
It’s interesting to compare the response of Francisco Guerrero to a similar text. His music in Maria Magdalene is more overtly joyful than Taverner’s. The performance here is delightfully light. I don’t recall hearing Lhéritier’s Surrexit Pastor bonus before but I’m glad it’s on this programme because it’s a fine and interesting piece and it’s given the best possible advocacy by Stile Antico.
That last comment holds true for everything on this disc. Whether they’re singing music that’s gritty (John McCabe), serene (Tallis), austerely devotional (Victoria) or exuberant (Gibbons’ Hosanna to the Son of David) Stile Antico are wonderful and expert advocates for the music in question. The group consists of twelve singers – reinforced by up to three more in a few of the pieces here – and, as I remarked earlier, they always sing without a conductor. The unanimity, balance, blend and consistent excellence of ensemble is, therefore, all the more remarkable. The singing is flawless throughout this disc yet this flawless standard is not achieved by making the music sound studied or antiseptic. On the contrary, the music is always full of life and the performances have flair and interest.
I listened to this disc as a conventional CD with excellent results: the sound is clear yet atmospheric. I would imagine that the SACD sound is even more impressive. Everything about this disc is outstanding: the music, the recorded sound, the artwork, the documentation and, of course, the performances. This is another very impressive achievement by Stile Antico.