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The Phoenix Rising

Classics Today awards 10/10 to The Phoenix Rising

David Vernier, Classics Today (May 2014)

Here’s one that somehow slipped out of last year’s review lineup, but deserves not to be missed by anyone who loves what’s known as “Tudor Church Music”–English sacred choral repertoire from the 16th/early-17th centuries, represented by composers such as Byrd, Tallis, and Gibbons. Much of this music was “revived” in the 1920s with the publication of the 10-volume Tudor Church Music, and some of the more popular selections from that collection are featured on this program.

In modern times, let’s say since the 1980s, groups such as The Tallis Scholars played a significant role in exciting renewed attention to parts of this repertoire–and along with it, recognition of its major composers–by listeners all over the world–a phenomenon that coincided with new interest in recordings due to the advent of the CD and digital technology as well as the rise of the period-performance movement and the so-called “early music revival”. Needless to say, if you want to hear this music sung by the new generation of specialist advocates, this is the group that will not fail to give you the most polished ensemble sound and technique yet always projecting an expressive aspect that recognizes the human/emotional pertinence of the texts.

Byrd’s “five-part” Mass may not be quite as popular with choirs as the “four-part”, but its music is just as affecting and textually effective.  Stile Antico wisely intersperses its movements with the program’s other nine pieces, including the motet Ave verum corpus, undoubtedly Byrd’s most celebrated work, Gibbons’ beloved anthem Almighty and everlasting God, and Tallis’ extraordinary In ieiunio et fletu and Salvator mundi (I), any one of which could serve as an ideal representative of Stile Antico’s artistry. Music of this style and period presents many ensemble challenges, but none is more important to master than being able to “pull together” an ending, which often involves extended and harmony-rich cadential closes–and we hear some especially impressive examples of Stile Antico’s mastery in the Salvator mundi, Robert White’s monumental Portio mea, Tallis’ In ieiunio and the Agnus Dei of the Byrd Mass.

Although White’s music is lesser known (and interestingly wasn’t included in the widely popular Oxford University Press collection of “Tudor Church Music” published in the 1970s, titled Oxford Book of Tudor Anthems), it can stand equally with that of any of the other composers represented here; Portio mea (from Psalm 119) is a masterpiece of expressive power, using varied textures, sustained harmonic drives, an often soaring soprano line, and, at its end, one of the more stunning displays of harmonic/melodic confrontation/resolution that you’ll ever hear.  (The Tallis Scholars’ pioneering version of this work, recorded a whole tone higher, sounds surprisingly thin and bright compared to Stile Antico’s warmly resonant, full-bodied rendition.) If this isn’t enough, you can be assured that you won’t hear a better reading of Byrd’s zillion-times-recorded Ave verum corpus, or Tallis’ equally honored Nolo mortem peccatoris. The production values and sound, from London’s St-Jude-on-the-Hill, are first rate. As I said at the beginning: don’t miss this one.