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Puer natus est

Opera News praises Puer natus est

Rick Hamlin, Opera News (December 2010)

Here’s a soundtrack for The Tudors at Christmastime: pipe it in when you’re warming the wassail and hanging the mistletoe. Even though the singers in Stile Antico have performed with Sting on the road and have earned a couple of Grammy nominations, don’t mistake them for rock stars. They’re the real deal, exquisitely trained classical musicians who give seamless lines to the most challenging early music.

In this elegant recording, they’re mostly concerned with Roman Catholic composer Thomas Tallis (1505-85) and his student William Byrd (1540?-1623) who were writing in a largely Protestant and increasingly Puritan England. Both composed for the crown and managed to keep their heads while pleasing different monarchs, in Tallis’s case “fower sovereygnes reygnes (a thing not often seen),” as his burial plaque declared – Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I. The Protestants wanted a clear chordal structure and less polyphony, while the Roman Catholics allowed for more florid expression.

The Christmas mass “Puer natus est,” the centerpiece of this recording, was written in 1554 for Mary Tudor, then recently wed to King Phillip II of Spain. Tallis indulged the occasion with the most lavish seven-part writing, as if the return of a Catholic monarch to the throne was cause for undiluted celebration. Stile Antico gets every nuance of the piece, from the tolling plainchant melody in the cantus firmus to the bell-like spin of melismas rising above. Their phrasing is so good it’s almost hard to unthread in a piece of such rich fabric; one line may disappear, but it’s always there, as in the reverse side of a Flemish tapestry.

Interwoven with the Tallis mass are four Byrd Propers, set to liturgical texts for Advent. These were written at a much later date, 1605, when recusant Catholics such as Byrd hoped for greater favor under James I, England’s first Stuart king. No longer employed by the Chapel Royal, Byrd was composing for wealthy Catholic families who worshipped in their country homes with choirs of hired servants (and the occasional spy) singing his music. I can’t imagine the music ever sounded as good as it does in Stile Antico’s capable hands. The group is described as “an ensemble of young British singers,” but youth can hardly account for their confidence, musicianship and flawless blend. I kept listening for a lone voice sticking out or an infelicitous harmony, but these fourteen singers sing as one – even when they’re in seven parts.

This choral music was written at a period when a composer’s choices could be dangerous – to his life itself, not just to his artistic reputation. It must have made Advent, the waiting for a prince of peace, all the more fervent.