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Song of Songs

Amazon editorial celebrates Song of Songs

Hugo Munday, Editorial (1 July, 2009)

The last place in the world I would have expected a musical revolution to take place would have been renaissance vocal music. How many different ways can a group sing “Now is the Month of Maying”? Beginning with The Deller Consort in 1948, we’ve enjoyed a usually high standard of vocal ensembles and since the 1970’s the major universities and conservatories of the world have gestated a group of note every five years or so. Making things more unlikely, the newest kids on the block have arrived on the most well-beaten path for groups like this. Most are ex-choral scholars from Cambridge University. The ensemble in question is Stile Antico and over the last few years they have broken into a different paradigm of performance for vocal groups of this sort. Recently harmonia mundi released their third recording Song of Songs and they’ve just completed their US debut at the Boston Early Music Festival.

As the title suggests, this recording is a compilation of renaissance compositions using texts from the Song of Solomon, the biblical collection of love poetry, purportedly written by King Solomon to a Shulamite girl. Many groups have fished in this pool before, but Stile Antico’s repertoire choices and exquisite program notes (written by Matthew O’Donovan, one of the basses) draw a well delineated link between the surge in medieval popularity and the suitability of these texts for the purposes of the Marian ‘cult’ that portrayed the Virgin Mary as the representation of the church as a whole.

This album holds together as a concert and a concept better than any other attempt at this repertoire that I have heard (actually, all three of their albums do that) but Stile Antico really set themselves apart in the way in which they perform. These musicians work without a conductor, which is common practice for chamber instrumentalists, but uncommon in a group of this size. Perilous as the concept might sound for a group of singers, I’ve never heard people present this repertoire with such a high level of commitment. Their other releases, Music for Compline and Heavenly Harmonies offer the same exquisite ensemble and intelligent programming choices. I know the group will be in New York in October, this year, but for a full breakdown of their concert itinerary I’d check their website. This repertoire has never been more engaging. (Hugo Munday)