Sunday 17 January 2010

Stile Antico at King's Place

On Thursday we went along to King's Place, our first visit for a long, long time, to see Stile Antico (artistic director Matthew O'Donovan) perform their programme In Paradisum - Swansongs and Memorials by the Renaissance masters. Stile Antico are a group of 13 young singers who perform unaccompanied, without conductor. Of the singers, 3 of them were common to the Chapelle du Roi, at whose December concert my own motet Videte Miraculum was performed.

Hall 1 at King's Place is not ideal for this sort of music. Granted it has a lovely, warm acoustic which set the group's tone off nicely, but what I missed was the resonance and acoustical warmth that comes from performing this repertoire in a church of the period. But there were gains, we were far closer to the singers and the result was a far more intimate recital than it might have been in a church.

Singing without a conductor when you are performing large scale pieces like Sheppard's Media Vita and Gombert's Magnificat primi toni means that something of the large scale shaping of the piece is lost, but the gains are significant as the group listen to each other and watch each other intently. The performances were intensely vivid and vital, you felt that each gesture counted. Yes, there were occasional moments when the larger scale pieces seemed to go onto automatic pilot and need a stronger direction, but these were few and I was impressed by how much control of scale there was. Only in Josquin's O Bone Jesu did they seem to lose their way a little.

But however much I enjoyed the other pieces in the programme (Byrd's Retire my soul, Lobo's Versa est luctum, Schütz's Herr, weenn ich nur Dich habe and the final spiritual madrigal from Lassus' Lagrime di San Pietro) it was to Sheppard's astonishing epic Media vita to which I come back. The group have just released a disc of Sheppard's music, including this piece, and the concert was in celebration of this.

The motets were separated by short pieces of plainchant from the Requiem mass, a rather beautiful solution to the scheduling. The result would have made an intensely pleasing pair of sequences for the first and the second half. But instead of keeping their positions on stage, the singers re-grouped for every item with a great deal of moving around and going on and off stage. The audience were thus encouraged to applaud each piece. What could have been an intensely moving continuous sequence of plainchant and polyphony, became instead a series of items in a concert. I felt that an opportunity had been missed. Add to this that, after some items, one or two of the audience seemed a little too keen to applaud, coming in just at that wrong moment when the piece was finished but hasn't quite gone.

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