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Song of Songs

High praise from Germany for Song of Songs

Oswald Beaujohn, Bayerischer Rudfunk (19 May, 2009)

Following their first two Harmonia Mundi releases of English Tudor music – by Thomas Tallis and William Byrd – Stile Antico now turns to European motets of the 16th and early 17th centuries. The earliest composer of the nine presented on this CD, the Frenchman Jean Lhéritier, was born around 1480, still in the late Middle Ages; the youngest, the Spaniart Sebastian de Vivanco, dided in 1622 at the dawn of the Baroque. Alongside several very prominent Renaissance masters, such as Palestrina, Lassus and Victoria are found the lesser-known Spaniards Francisco Guerrero and Rodrigo de Ceballos, or the Franco-Flemish composer Nicolas Gombert. The are united not only by their period, but by the fact that set texts from the Canticum Canticorum – the Song of Songs – that wonderful collection of Old Testament love poetry which Martin Luther named “das Hohelied”, and which suggested such wonderful settings to countless composers.

This highly erotic poetry, which describes the spiritual, emotional and even physical relationship between two lovers, was interpreted by Jews and Christians alike as a representation of the relationship between God and the Israelite people or between Christ and his bridge, the Church, as well as between Christ and the soul. Its conjunction with the Marian devotion of the Middle Ages must provide at least one reason for the huge popularity of these texts amongst Renaissance comosers. Another may simply be the quality of the texts, some of the most beautiful love poetry ever written, which may have inspired artistic souls, even – or especially – if clerics were involved, as was so often the case (as with Gombert).

Stile Antico, a group of young British singers, on this recording six women and six men, to whom a seventh is occasionally added, concentrates exclusively on the music of the Renaissance. The ensemble, made up of fantastic individual voices, works without direction, sounds at once unbelievably perfect and homogenous and at the same time maintains a wonderfully expressive, sensual sound and style, which suits these Song of Songs motets ideally. The first six minutes alone of this amazingly beautiful CD, Clemens non Papa’s seven-voiced motet “Ego flos campi”, is sufficient to put the listener completely under their spell. Like a Gothic cathedral, this dazzling masterpiece offers peace and beauty, sensuality and magic in equal measure. A feast in sound!