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Puer natus est

Classics Today enjoys Puer natus est

David Vernier, Classics Today (23 August, 2010)

The endless hot summer drags on, and the promise of Advent and Christmas, recalled by the mid-August arrival of this new recording from Stile Antico, is quite compelling. And so is the music, headlined by the magnificent, monumental, and incomplete Missa Puer natus est of Thomas Tallis. The Mass has been recorded before, most notably by The Tallis Scholars and The Sixteen, but apparently a new performing edition was prepared for this current disc by Sally Dunkley (who, with David Wulstan also was responsible for the Tallis Scholars version from 2001). Without copies of the scores in hand–or some very close comparative listening–it’s difficult to discern what differences there may be, if any; however, any performance requires some reconstruction of voice parts, so it’s possible, even likely, that Stile Antico’s Tallis Mass is not identical part-for-part to the others.

Whatever the case regarding the details of the scores, there’s no question as to interpretive differences. While The Tallis Scholars and similarly The Sixteen are more measured, more restrained in their use of dynamic changes, Stile Antico is not averse to a little more contrast from one section to another, or to a bit of reveling in a climactic point or concluding cadence–not a bad thing in music whose bolder, more audacious moments are too often underplayed. These aspects of the group’s style can be easily appreciated in the Gloria–the shift to a more gentle, prayerful tone at the words “qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis…suscipe deprecationem nostram”, and the truly glorious, electrifying explosion of harmonies at the end of the movement.

The Mass certainly is a compositional marvel–although its seven-part voicing ensures relatively dense textures, Tallis manages to weave the melodic fibers with incredible smoothness and grace for very long stretches while maintaining a vibrant harmonic rhythm, such that you sense an easy if powerful flow from beginning to end, which benefits from Stile Antico’s strong voices and consistently tight ensemble.

Although the Tallis understandably gets top billing, for me Robert White’s Magnificat is the highlight of the program–a masterpiece among a host of other contenders, including the selections by Byrd and of course John Sheppard’s dauntingly impressive Verbum caro. My only complaint here is that, depending on the particular voicing, but especially in the Tallis, the recording positions the lowest bass voice just slightly too close, creating an imbalance that can be distracting. I remember 25 years ago when I first heard The Tallis Scholars and thought how lucky we early music fans were to have this group and its recordings and performances to look forward to; with continuing respect for Peter Phillips and his groundbreaking ensemble, I find those same thoughts returning with every new Stile Antico recording. Highly recommended.