Saturday, 2 December, 2023 at 7:30 pm
Little St Mary’s Church, Cambridge, United Kingdom
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Stephen Eddins, AllMusic (November 2010)
The British vocal ensemble Stile Antico was established in 2001 and within its first decade has been acknowledged as one of the very finest early music groups, with multiple Grammy nominations, as well as Gramophone and Diapason d’or Awards. This album, Puer natus est: Tudor Music for Advent and Christmas, received a Diapason d’or Award in October 2010. One thing that sets this group apart from similar ensembles is the fact that it works without a conductor, making aesthetic decisions together and listening very, very closely to each for balance and tempos. It’s possible to hear the singers’ commitment to each other in their attentiveness to the subtlest nuances in dynamics and pacing. Their approach is ideal for this repertoire, English Renaissance polyphony, which demands intense concentration, absolutely secure intonation, and a carefully balanced blend to make its full impact. The centerpiece of the album is Thomas Tallis’ incomplete Christmas mass, Missa Puer natus est, of which only three movements were written. The recording opens with Tallis’ Advent motet, Videte miraculum, and includes four of William Byrd’s settings of the Propers of the Mass, a Magnificat by Robert White, motets by John Tavener and John Sheppard, as well as the plainchant on which Tallis’ mass is based. The mass movements are separated by the propers and motets, as would have been done in a liturgical setting. The gain in performance authenticity is tempered by the loss of continuity of hearing the mass as a complete unit. The flow of the selections is pleasant, but this ordering makes it hard to keep track of the unity of Tallis’ work. Stile Antico sings with phenomenally pure tone. The women’s voices have the chaste clarity associated with boys’ voices, but deployed with a technical assurance and musical sensitivity beyond that of most boys. The sound of the ensemble is ravishing in its warmth and the evenness of its blend. The performances are expressive, but never idiosyncratically so; the singers have no interpretive agenda other than letting the composers’ voices be heard as beautifully and authentically as possible. The sound of Harmonia Mundi’s hybrid SACD is clear, absolutely clean, and suffused with warmth.