Saturday, 2 December, 2023 at 7:30 pm
Little St Mary’s Church, Cambridge, United Kingdom
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John Quinn, MusicWeb International (18 November, 2010)
The start of this disc is arresting. That may sound a strange thing to say, given the nature of the repertoire but I can-t think of a more appropriate word. After the plainsong intonation that begins Tallis’s luminous Videte miraculum the polyphony starts gently, even delicately. The sheer beauty of the singing is a harbinger of what’s to follow over the next seventy-eight minutes. The piece itself is quite wonderful and so is the performance. In his booklet note Matthew O’Donovan, one of the singers, says that this Tallis motet “effuses an extraordinary sense of rapt adoration, stillness and mystery; to hear it is to stand awestruck before a fine painting of the Virgin and Child.” I cannot but agree yet it requires a performance of the quality of this present one to bring the music truly to life. For a Christian believer this rapt music surely illuminates the Mystery of the Incarnation; and the non-believer can appreciate it just as much as an expression of high art. In this very special performance everything seems just right: the chant sections are fluently delivered while the polyphony is superbly controlled. This is one of the most beautiful accounts of any piece of music that I’ve heard in years.
This disc is my first encounter with the British ensemble Stile Antico, though I have read appreciative comments about them in the press. Like the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra they don’t have a conductor but the precision and unanimity of their singing on this disc would be envied by many a conductor. The core membership of the group consists of twelve singers although I think they were joined by a handful of guests on this occasion because fourteen singers are listed in the booklet. Incidentally, the three altos are all female. The group produces a lovely, even sound and throughout this disc tuning, ensemble and blend seemed impeccable to me. They also sing with great clarity – every line is crystal clear – and the balance between the voices and parts is superb – and this is all the more remarkable when you consider that they don’t have a conductor to regulate the performances as they proceed. If I have a criticism it would be that the music making is a bit too even. It might be objected that the style is a little too calm and collected but the sheer beauty of sound does tend to disarm criticism.
The programme is built around Tallis’s seven-part Christmas Mass, Puer natus est. The setting is incomplete and for this recording Stile Antico use a new edition and reconstruction of the score by Sally Dunkley. It’s a marvellous setting. Much of the music is expansive and outgoing, as befits a mass setting for one of the great feasts of the Christian calendar. It was almost certainly composed during the reign of Queen Mary Tudor (1553-1558), that brief period that marked the last years of Catholic monarchy in England, and the music is full of confidence. The Gloria is given a splendidly assured performance by Stile Antico and I particularly admired the way in which each part is perfectly weighted against the others in the expressive ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi’ section. Later, at ‘Quoniam tu solus’, the music gathers momentum for the closing section and it’s noteworthy that these singers increase the excitement without compromising the smooth, splendidly blended textures. The music of the Sanctus is impressive and finely modulated while the serene, prayerful Agnus Dei is brought off quite beautifully.
The sections of the Mass are interwoven with four appropriate pieces from Byrd’s Gradualia. These are all prayers from the Proper of the Votive Mass for the Virgin Mary during Advent. Their inclusion in this programme is welcome on several counts. In the first place, the music itself is superb: each piece is a marvel of concision and expressiveness. Furthermore, each piece is placed within the Tallis setting at what would be the correct juncture in a liturgical celebration of the Mass. But for me one of the most interesting aspects of the inclusion of these pieces by Byrd is the contrast they afford with the Tallis mass. Some fifty years had passed between the composition of that mass setting and the compilation of the Gradualia and England had changed irrevocably. A Catholic country had become firmly Protestant and while Tallis had been able to write for a public celebration of the Mass these particular pieces by Byrd were designed for use by recusant Catholic congregations. So, though Tollite portas is a forthright offering, for the most part we find that a more intimate, less public tone is struck by Byrd. Thus the lovely Ave Maria is poised and devotional while the exquisite Ecce virgo concipiet communicates gentle wonder and awe. Stile Antico’s performances of these four little gems are exceptionally fine.
Robert White’s Magnificat is a wide-ranging and substantial piece. It’s an alternatim setting and in the polyphonic passages White cleverly varies the scoring of each section so that while some are in as many as six parts he often uses much smaller forces. This means that the textures are constantly changing as the piece evolves. The performance by Stile Antico is assured and colourful.
Their recital began with a wonderful piece, superbly performed. Their account of Sheppard’s Verbum caro ends the programme with comparable distinction. It’s exquisite, full of a sense of calm joy and the performance is absolutely superb.
This is a wonderful disc. I enjoyed it from start to finish and marvelled at the quality of the performances. Other production values are as high as the quality of the music and the singing. The note by Matthew O’Donovan combines erudition and clarity and is very readable. His note is contained in a beautifully produced booklet, which contains some fine illustrations as well as clearly printed texts and translations. Finally, one’s pleasure in the music-making is greatly enhanced by the excellent quality of the recorded sound. I listened to the disc as a conventional CD and thought the recording was most impressive but I’d love to hear it with the even greater definition of SACD.
I said earlier on that this was my first encounter with Stile Antico: I shall make sure it’s not my last. I can only urge you to acquire this exceptionally fine disc and let the radiance of the music and the performances illuminate your Christmas.