Thursday, 1 January 2015

New Year's Eve treat from Stile Antico

Stile Antico - photo Marco Borggreve
Stile Antico - photo Marco Borggreve
M & H Praetorius, Clemens non Papa, Eccard, Handl, Hassler, Lassus; Stile Antico; the Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 31 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Late 16th and 17th century Christmas music from two contrasting traditions, in fine performances

A packed Wigmore Hall audience enjoyed a New Year's Eve treat as Stile Antico presented their programme A Wondrous Mystery - Flemish and German Christmas Music. As Andrew Griffiths pointed out in his spoken introduction, 31 December is still within the Octave of Christmas, so their programme explored Christmas music from the late sixteenth and early 17th centuries in two traditions. There was music by the Flemish composers Clemens non Papa and Orlande de Lassus, alongside music by German composers Hieronymous Praetorius, Johannes Eccard, Hans Leo Hassler and Jacob Handl (who was Slovene but worked in German speaking countries). The fascinating thing was that, given the nature of the times, the music mixed both Roman Catholic and Lutheran liturgical needs, the one based on elaborate motets the other on chorales which were often originally for congregational singing. The movements from Clemens non Papa's mass Missa Pastores quidnam vidistis threaded their its way through the programme.

Stile Antico is a 12 person vocal ensemble, six men and six women who perform without a conductor. They stand in a semi circle, alternating men and women, and one of the fascinating things about any performance by them is watching the dynamic interplay between singers during a performance. Vocally they make a clear bright sound, characterised by the pure, straight voices of the sopranos. There is a nice clarity to the various lines but still preserving an element of character in the individual voices, the ensemble is thankfully not blended to death.


They started with the arrangement of Es ist ein Ros entsprungen by Michael Praetorius (1571 - 1621), in a bright, fresh performance full of shapely detail. Then came the motet Pastores quidnam vidistis by Jacobus Clemens non Papa (c1510 - c1555/6), setting a Christmas text about the shepherds. This was a five-part setting, all nicely satisfying polyphony in a calm and poised performance.

The Magnificat by Hieronymous Praetorius (1560 - 1629) [no relation to Michael] was explicitly a Christmas piece and has two carols Joseph lieber, Joseph mein and In dulci jubilo interpolated into it. It was sung by just eight singers, in two choirs (one higher voices, one lower voices), and the whole piece had a lovely rhythmic bounce with great interaction between the two choirs. The carols brought a light bright feel to the texture, contrasting with the richness of the polyphony in the magnificat sections.

There followed the Kyrie from Clemens non Papa's Missa Pastores quidnam vidistis based on the motet. The mass used the same five-part voicing (sung by all 12 singers), which gave it a lovely rich texture. As with the motet, there was a sense of calmness to the performance highlighting the serene beauty of the writing and clarity of the interweaving lines.

Johannes Eccard (1553 - 1611) is best known in the UK for his motet When to the temple Mary went. His otet Ubers Gebirg Maria geht is a polychoral piece woven around a chorale. It was almost folk-like at times, with some lovely cross rhythms. Jacob Handl (Jacobus Gallus) (1550 - 1591) was  Slovene; he may have been born Jacob Petelin (Petelin mean rooster in Slovene, which translates to Handl in German and Gallus in Latin); he was no relation to George Frideric. His motet Canite tuba was a five-part piece sung by just five men, It proved to be a vibrant, joyous piece and attractively canonic.

The first half concluded with the Gloria from Clemens non Papa's mass, in which the lively, constantly moving texture of the vocal lines in the opening section contrasted nicely with the slower, more considered section section (from Domine Deus, Agnus Dei), leading to lovely triple time ending.

The second half opened with Handl's Mirabile mysterium, in which the composer evoked the mystery referred to in the text by using some amazingly chromatic writing. The result was full of advanced harmony and shifting textures, akin to the writing of Gesualdo.

The Credo from Clemens non Papa's mass was a lively piece with a lovely vibrancy about it, though I was not sure whether the setting brought out the text as it should (the composer's fault, not the singers whose diction was exemplary). Et incarnatus est was, however, rather more homophonic and the singers performed this in wonderfully hushed way, though I thought that the transition to the triple time conclusion was a little rushed.

Michael Praetorius's Ein Kind geboren in Bethlehem was another arrangement, this time of the carol Puer natus in Bethlehem. It started with a lively triple time duet for two sopranos and throughout Praetorius varied the numbers and types of voices used.  Eccard's Vom himmel hoch was an arrangement of Martin Luther's chorale and Eccard surrounded the chorale melody with rich harmony. The singers gave us some lovely rhythmic interaction between the parts.

The Sanctus and Benedictus from Clemens non Papa's mass were notable for the slow developing richness and long intertwining lines. Hans Leo Hassler (1564 - 1612) wrote both Lutheran chorales and Latin motets and masses (his mass Dixit Maria will probably be familiar to singers in church choirs). His ten part motet Hodie Christus natus est reflected Hassler's training in Venice with its use of two choirs (one higher voices, the other lower voices). The singers made a big bright sound, enlivened by rhythmic detail.

For the Agnus Dei of his Missa Pastores quidnam vidistis, Clemens non Papa added an additional voice thus giving us an even richer six-part texture, which was slow moving and full of false relations; simply gorgeous.

For the final item we turned to a Flemish composer who spent most of his working life in Germany, Orlande de Lassus (c1530 - 1594). His motet Resonet in Laudibus takes its text from the Latin version of the carol Jospeh lieber, Joseph mein which featured in Hieronymous Praetorius's Magnificat. Lassus uses the carol tune, but threads it through a web of complex polyphony with the singers sang with joyous vitality.

There was a capacity audience and they were rightly enthusiastic, so we were treated to an encore. Slightly off topic perhaps, but quite superb; the anthem known in English as Three Kings from Persian lands afar in which Peter Cornelius (1824 - 1874) added a lovely solo baritone line (here sung by Will Dawes) to the choral Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern. Looking forward to Epiphany, the piece was a perfect way to end the concert.

Stile Antico: Helen Ashby, Kate Ashby, Rebecca Hickey (sopranos), Emma Ashby, Eleanor Harries, Katie Schofield (alto), Jim Clements, Andrew Griffiths, Benedict Hymas (tenor), Will Dawes, Thomas Flint, Matthew O'Donovan (bass)

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