This is the third disc from Stile Antico to come my
way for review. Just over a year ago I was deeply impressed
by their wonderful album of Tudor Christmas music, Puer natus
Subsequently, I reviewed
their last disc, Tune thy Musike to thy Hart, and whilst,
purely as a matter of subjective taste, I wasn’t quite
as carried away by all the repertoire on that programme I admired,
nonetheless, the consistently very high performance standards.
Now they’re back with another collection of pieces of
Renaissance polyphony recorded at their usual venue, All Hallows’
Church, Gospel Oak. The pieces they’ve chosen are all
for Holy Week and Easter.
Unusually for this group, I believe, the disc includes a piece
of contemporary music in the shape of John McCabe’s Woefully
arrayed. This was commissioned by the Three Choirs Festival
and premièred by Stile Antico at the 2009 Festival in
Hereford. I’m often struck by how well a good piece of
contemporary music can sit with pre-Classical music and this
is a case in point, for McCabe’s is a good piece.
He’s deliberately chosen to set the same words that William
Cornysh used some five centuries earlier, namely three verses
from a poem whose author is unknown but may have been John Skelton
(1460-1529). The words offer a meditation on the Crucifixion
and are written as if they had been spoken by the crucified
Christ himself. McCabe’s setting is unified by a motif
to which the title words are set. At the start this is heard
as jagged, stabbing music and at each subsequent appearance
we hear a variant on that treatment. The textures are often
spare and the writing is economical of means - as was Cornysh’s
setting. Often McCabe’s music is, fittingly, stark and
uncompromising with gritty harmonic language. It’s a powerful
and effective piece, which receives a committed and sensitive
performance here for its first recording. Stile Antico customarily
perform without a conductor and I would imagine that, as a result,
this piece must present particular challenges though you’d
never know from hearing their assured delivery of it.
There is a short introductory video in which the group can be
seen singing part of McCabe’s piece. To view it, click
The setting of the same words by William Cornysh, which opens
the programme, is rather unusual in that it’s not as ornate
in style as other pieces by him that I’ve heard. Matthew
O’Donovan, a member of Stile Antico, explains that in
his very useful notes: this was a devotional ‘carol’,
designed for domestic performance, he says. Hence, like some
of the pieces on the group’s album, Tune thy Musike
to thy Hart, it’s more direct in expression and simpler
in style than a piece of church music might have been.
The remainder of the programme includes music by English, Flemish
and Iberian composers. Among the English contributions Tallis’s
O sacrum convivium stands out. It’s a wonderful,
serene anthem to the Blessed Sacrament. The performance by Stile
Antico is notable for the exemplary control, not least of line,
which the singers exhibit. I love the way they build the intensity
of piece very naturally. Even better, if one may compare miniature
masterpieces, is Taverner’s Dum transisset. In
my humble opinion this glorious piece is one of the most exquisite
examples of Tudor polyphony. Stile Antico convey the gentle
ecstasy of Taverner’s inspired setting in one of the most
perfect renditions of it that I can recall hearing.
It’s interesting to compare the response of Francisco
Guerrero to a similar text. His music in Maria Magdalene
is more overtly joyful than Taverner’s. The performance
here is delightfully light. I don’t recall hearing Lhéritier’s
Surrexit Pastor bonus before but I’m glad it’s
on this programme because it’s a fine and interesting
piece and it’s given the best possible advocacy by Stile
That last comment holds true for everything on this disc. Whether
they’re singing music that’s gritty (John McCabe),
serene (Tallis), austerely devotional (Victoria) or exuberant
(Gibbons’ Hosanna to the Son of David) Stile Antico
are wonderful and expert advocates for the music in question.
The group consists of twelve singers - reinforced by up to three
more in a few of the pieces here - and, as I remarked earlier,
they always sing without a conductor. The unanimity, balance,
blend and consistent excellence of ensemble is, therefore, all
the more remarkable. The singing is flawless throughout this
disc yet this flawless standard is not achieved by making the
music sound studied or antiseptic. On the contrary, the music
is always full of life and the performances have flair and interest.
I listened to this disc as a conventional CD with excellent
results: the sound is clear yet atmospheric. I would imagine
that the SACD sound is even more impressive.
Everything about this disc is outstanding: the music, the recorded
sound, the artwork, the documentation and, of course, the performances.
This is another very impressive achievement by Stile Antico.