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Tune thy Musicke to thy Hart

Ariama reviews Tune thy Musicke

Craig Zeichner, Ariama (22 February, 2012)

Some of the most intense and deeply felt sacred music of 16th century England wasn’t sung in the cathedral, but in domestic worship in private homes. The ascendency of the English Reformation proved dangerous and, at times, fatal for religious dissenters. Catholics and high church Anglicans were forced into private worship at home and the music heard on Tune thy musicke to thy Hart, the new album by Stile Antico and Fretwork, focuses on this ‘secular’ (non-church) religious music by Thomas Tomkins, Thomas Campion, William Byrd, Thomas Tallis, Orlando Gibbons and others.

This is sparer music than would have been heard in the cathedral, more direct in expression with simpler melodic lines. In some cases popular styles, like the madrigal and lute song, also find their way into the mix, and a number of the works appear in both sacred and secular sources. That’s not to say that any of this music is necessarily ‘easy’ or simplistic. John Browne’s gorgeous carol Jesu, mercy, has a communicative immediacy that’s powerful, but Browne also paints words, shifts key and shuffles the deck in a way that’s anything but simple. The madrigal anthem ‘O praise the Lord’ by Tomkins is a showcase of 12-part polyphony loaded with antiphonal effects that certainly convinces us the musical literacy of “ordinary people” was pretty high in the 16th century.

Some of the biggest surprises on the album come from composers who are not exactly household names. John Amner (? – 1641) is represented by two pieces, a brilliant Christmas anthem ‘O ye little flock’and ‘A stranger here.’ The Christmas anthem makes marvelous use of varied groups of soloists, most notably in the passage where a pair of voices depict angels ‘crying to one another.’ After hearing it, I couldn’t help but think of the Duo Seraphim from Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers. ‘A stranger here’ has forward-looking dissonances that might have made Gesualdo blink. Both are remarkable, so thus begins my search for more of Amner’s music.

For all the talk about directness of communication, mixing of genres and other musicological issues, you will be floored by the flat-out beauty of the music and performances. Campion’s piercingly poignant ‘Never weather-beaten sail’ is so sweetly sung that you’d have to have a heart of granite not to be moved. Stile Antico sing with warmth and polished vocal blend on every track. No surprises there, but what struck me most was the sheer beauty of their voices, something that sometimes might be overlooked when the group sings more densely packed polyphony and your attention is drawn to their technical precision.

Fretwork makes marvelous contributions to the program. They join the ensemble in Amner’s ‘O ye little flock,’ Byrd’s ‘Why do I use my paper, ink and pen?’ and Gibbons’ powerful ‘See, see the Word is incarnate.’ They also perform several ‘In Nomine’ settings by John Taverner and Robert Parsons. The ‘In Nomine’ is an instrumental work based on the section in the Benedictus of Taverner’s Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas. As always, Fretwork’s dark chocolaty tone seduces.

There are few ensembles currently on the scene who have stirred up as much excitement as Stile Antico. In the rarified world of Renaissance sacred music you’d have to go back to the heyday of the Tallis Scholars to find a group who dominate so completely. But the measure of Stile Antico’s success is that they generate a buzz outside the sometimes insular world of early music. Nobody sings this music better than Stile Antico and anyone who has even a passing interest in vocal music should get this and their other albums. Tune thy Musicke to thy Hart is an early front runner for best of the year and my favorite Stile Antico album.