Saturday, April 21, 8:00 PM
Church of St. Mary the Virgin
NEW YORK – Miller Theatre’s Early Music series, which regularly presents concerts at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in midtown Manhattan, concluded its season with a concert by the English vocal ensemble Stile Antico. It was the group’s last concert of their Spring American tour, and featured a program that was described from the stage as a “whistle stop tour through the music of the Renaissance.” Indeed, in a single evening the group covered a wide range of repertoire that encompassed the entire chronology of Renaissance polyphony. The program included a number of works that choral music aficionados would consider its chestnuts. These were complemented by less famous, yet still musical engaging, pieces and several works by lesser known composers who seem undeservedly underrepresented on concert programs and recordings.
Two of the latter were Spanish composers Rodrigo de Ceballos and Sebastian de Vivanco, whose Hortus Conclusus and Veni, dilecte mi, stood toe to toe with fellow countryman Tomas Luis de Victoria, despite his representation on the program being the superlative – and superlatively sung – O Magnum Mysterium. Two other Continental standouts were Nicolas Gombert’s Magnificat primi toni and Clemens non Papa’s Egos flos campi. The latter was particularly sumptuous (below, I’ve included a YouTube video of the group performing it in 2008).
Stile Antico excels in their presentation of English Renaissance repertoire, which was abundantly present on the program. Often, composers were represented by two contrasting works, demonstrating their responses to different texts and, during the Tudor era, their differing responses to Catholic and Anglican liturgical settings. Thus, William Byrd’s affirmative Laetentur coeli contrasted with Vigilate, a work that would seem to be a covert nod towards the suffering and tribulations of recusant Catholics during the Elizabethan era. Likewise, Thomas Tallis’ O Sacrum Convivium (another gorgeously blended performance) was later contrasted with Why Fum’th in Fight, one of Eight Tunes from Archbishop Parker’s Psalter (probably best known for its reincarnation in Vaughan Williams’ Fantasy on a Theme by Thomas Tallis - or, as some of my less astute students recently said, “The theme from Master and Commander). John Sheppard was represented by a single work, but his Lord’s Prayer (with an earlier version of the wording that was quite moving) was another work performed with particular clarity and beauty of tone.
Commissioned for the ensemble, John McCabe’s Woefully Arrayed, a visceral and rhythmically charged Passion motet, was the program’s sole representation of non-Renaissance music, but it indicated theatStile Antico is more than up to the task of assaying challenging and chromatic repertoire. Generally speaking, here and elsewhere, the group’s intonation and diction were superlative. Their approach is faithful to current performance practice research, while embodying an immediacy and effulgent expressivity that is quite stirring. For example, the crisp consonants and tightly interwoven phrases they lent to Byrd’s Vigilate, when compared to the sensuous luxuriance of Stile Antico’s performance of Lassus’ Veni, dilecte mi demonstrated a broad range of approaches that were both imaginative and stylistically faithful. One area in which the ensemble might endeavor to improve is their diction in works with many divisi: some of the texts were difficult to decipher in their performances of Thomas Tomkins’ O Praise the Lord and the concert’s closer Tota pulchra es by Hieronymus Praetorius. But to dwell overlong on these minor infelicities would be hairsplitting: Stile Antico provided a wonderful evening of rousing singing.
They even shared an encore by Thomas Campion – a teaser from their latest CD on Harmonia Mundi, Tune thy Musicke to thy Hart. A collaboration with early music consort Fretwork, the disc is a collection of Tudor and Jacobean music for private devotion. This less formal, and more intimate, repertoire is approached by the groups with refinement, delicacy, and characteristic musicality. Both the CD, and Stile Antico’s next visit to a venue in your area, are wholeheartedly recommended.
Stile Antico performs Clemens:
Here they are on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts series: