Stile Antico Explore Holy Week (CD Review)

Passion and Resurrection
Stile Antico
Harmonia Mundi CD

November might seem like an unusual time to release a CD titled Passion and Resurrection. But Stile Antico’s latest recording for Harmonia Mundi is a welcome addition to their catalogue regardless of any dissonance with the liturgical calendar.

With one notable exception, the disc presents a mixed program of Continental and English Renaissance music. There is one 21st century piece – a setting of “Woefully Arrayed” by English composer John McCabe (b. 1939). Commissioned for Stile Antico, this first recording of McCabe’s piece is nearly as scintillating as the performance I heard of it in New York in 2011. That’s saying something, as I then found the work a gripping, even wrenching, depiction of Christ’s agony. Reiterated pileups of dissonant polychords create a visceral imitation of hammer blows, while sinuous lines offset the more rhythmically charged passages with a plaintive keening. It’s instructive to hear another setting of the poem by William Cornysh (1465-1523), in which paired imitations and melismas provide an entirely different, yet in its own way quite moving, musical outpouring of grief.

There are lively selections on the CD as well. Particularly fine is Stile Antico’s rousing renditions of Orlando Gibbons’s Hosanna to the Son of David and William Byrd’s In Resurrectione Tua. And one would be remiss not to mention the delicacy of Stile Antico’s version of O Crux Ave by Christobal de Morales as well as the sumptuous sound that the singers display in Thomas Tallis’s O Sacrum Convivium and Jean Lheritier’s Surrexit Pastor Bonus. What about the goose bump inducing purity of their intonation on  Dum Transisset by John Taverner? This is one of those few recordings that makes it exceedingly difficult to zero in on the standout moments. While one does wonder if their use of  ”hairpins” as a means of dynamic contrast is always stylistically correct – it seems perhaps a bit overdone on Orlando de Lassus’s De Monte Oliveti, this is a little quibble; one is certainly glad to hear the thoughtfulness and desire to make meaningful contrasts that are evidently part of their interpretative process. Even in the Advent and Christmas season, there’s room for listening to Passion and Resurrection.

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