Wednesday 27 March 2013

Sombrely moving - Stile Antico at the Wigmore Hall

Stile Antico
Stile Antico is a vocal ensemble making a name for itself performing a wide variety of Early Music without a conductor. For their concert at the Wigmore Hall on Tuesday 26 Marc 2013 they performed a seasonal programme, Miserere: penitential Music by Byrd and his Contemporaries, with music not only by William Byrd, but by Thomas Tallis, Thomas Morley, John Sheppard and Robert White. Fielding some twelve singers (with all women on the alto line), the group in fact almost moves from vocal ensemble to chamber choir.

They performed in a semi-circle, alternating men and women, ensuring that all members had good eye contact. The sense of informed communication and lively interchange (both vocal and non-vocal) was a strong feature of the evening. As befitted the season, the music was all sombre and penitential with Robert White's Lamentations concluding part one, and William Byrd's Infelix ergo concluding part two.

The opened with Byrd's Miserere mei from his second volume of Cantiones Sacrae published in 1591. In fact the concert coincided with the 450th anniversary of William Byrd's appointment to Lincoln Cathedral. The group made a very full sound, especially when they used all twelve singers in Byrd's five-part motet. I was conscious of all the singers producing a good firm line, but also noted the way the individual voices blended into a whole.

Byrd and Tallis received a music printing monopoly from Queen Elizabeth I and they produced a joint publication, Cantiones Sacrae in 1575. But they issued no more music in Tallis's lifetime (they continued to print music paper however). After Tallis's death Byrd produced two volumes in quick succession, the Cantiones Sacrae of 1589 and 1591.

All these motets set Latin texts, many of them with little or no liturgical usage. The music was probably produced largely for the domestic market. We should think of the musically literate Elizabethan extended family at home singing these as vocal chamber music. But we are also coming to understand that there was a sub-text in Byrd's Latin motets, that the titles and subject matter helped to send coded messages to the Roman Catholic community underground.

Tallis's Salvator Mundi I, comes from the 1575 Cantiones Sacrae. Stile Antico brought to the work a lovely feeling of line and a beautiful simplicity. Next came Thomas Morley's Nolo mortem peccatoris of 1616. Though Morley was a pupil of Byrd, the motet is rather in an older style with a macaronic text mixing Latin and English, being in Stile Antico's hands very affecting.

Though numbering twelve singers, not all sang in every item and for Byrd's Memento Homo (from the 1575 Cantiones Sacrae) just six singers were used. The work's penitential nature was emphasised by the way Byrd misses of sopranos, setting it for six lower voices (ATTBaBaB). The lower parts gave it an enormously dark, rich chocolatey sound, though with so many lower male voices the part writing did rather merge. The group expanded up to ten singers for Tallis's Absterge Domine, though the motet kept the rather dark texture, the whole had a rather seductive sound quality.

Just four singers performed Tallis's Purge me O Lord, giving a welcome break from richer textures. The piece survives only in a keyboard version from the Mulliner Book of around 1550. Its homophonic textures put it closer to the simple, direct projecting of text preferred during Edward VI's reign. With just four voices, the parts were projected with less blend and far more sense of individual voices.

The first half closed with all twelve singers performing Robert White's Lamentations. Robert White (c. 1538 - 1574) was organist at Westminster Abbey and was married to Christopher Tye's daughter, but White and his family all died in the plague of 1574.

The musical fashion for settings of Lamentations in Elizabethan England is slightly puzzling. The Anglican Church of the time had no liturgical use for them and in fact White sets a rather distinctive and personal section of verses. He sets six verses, each preceded by a long melismatic setting of the initial Hebrew letter, sung by the whole choir. Each group of three verses is concluded with the text Jerusalem, turn to the Lord your God.

It is a large and complex work, perhaps we can again imagine our Elizabethan family this time celebrating Holy Week by singing this work with its profoundly penitential text and wonderfully satisfying musical textures. White's writing is quite sober, with much harmonic interest but with no fancy gestures. The singers gave a richly satisfying performance, they were not frightened of using full voice and singing out, bringing the climaxes to the heights of passion.

Part two opened with a pair of works from the 1575 Cantiones Sacrae. Byrd's Emendus in melius was mainly homophonic but nonetheless beautiful. By contrast, Tallis's In jejunio et fletu is astonishing, Tallis used modern musical devices to characterise the weeping and wailing, approaching far closer to advanced continental harmony than was usual.

Byrd's Attend mine humble prayer comes from his Songs of Sundrie Natures, published in 1589. The piece is in just three parts and Stile Antico performed it using just three singers, giving full reign to the expressive counterpoint. A deceptively simple work, it is one which leaves no hiding places for the performers.

All twelve performers returned for the following pair of works, both Misereres from the 1575 Cantiones Sacrae with Byrd and Tallis producing the two works in friendly rivalry. Tallis's Miserere nostri is a triple canon for seven voices which hides its learning well. Tallis creates a hypnotic, slow moving sound with sopranos floating magically above the lower textures, though I have to admit that I wondered if some of the rhythmic timing might have been a little smudged. Byrd's Miserere mihi has a more turbulent texture than the Tallis. The work is quite richly structured and Stile Antico brought a lovely flow to the performance.

John Sheppard's Haste thee O God dates from the reign of Edward VI, so it is mainly homophonic but expressive nonetheless.

Finally, the group performed another substantial work, Byrd's three-part motet Infelix ego setting part of Savanorola's meditation on Psalm 51, published in Cantiones Sacrae of 1591. Again, we are unclear quite why Byrd chose to set Savanorola's text, perhaps the combination of Savanorola himself being persecuted (his meditations were supposedly written on the eve of his execution) with way the text talks of finding no refuge on earth, but a refuge in God.

In many ways the piece looks both backwards and forwards. Byrd uses the rather old-fashioned early Tudor technique of having different sections of the work sung by different groups of voices, but he also has a very modern sense of engagement with the text. His setting is coloured by the meaning of the text as it moves from self pity and despair to hope in God. Stile Antico gave a quite measured, rather dignified account of the work though one not lacking in passion.

The choice of repertoire gave the evening a rather sombre feel. Though the performances were superb, there was also a slight feeling that the speeds were generally on the steady side with only a moderated ebb and flow. Perhaps some stronger contrast was required in the types of work sung.

One of the distinctive things about the concert was the way that the singers, placed in a semi-circle, did not look at the audience but instead at each other. Unlike many groups, they did not perform to the audience though there was never any feeling of the performance being held back, instead we had the feeling that we were listening in on a highly polished performance. But in the end we came back to the fact that the musicianship of the group is astonishing, especially as they achieve everything without conductor.

The audience were rightly enthusiastic and we were treated to an encore, Thomas Tallis's O Sacrum Convivium.

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