Tuesday 6 August 2013

The Phoenix Rising

The Phoenix Rising - Stile Antico - HMU807572
The vocal ensemble Stile Antico's latest disc celebrates the publication of Tudor Church Music by the Carnegie UK Trust in 1922 to 1929. Almost forgotten nowadays, this publication helped to make available some of the glories of Tudor church music, enabling amateur choirs to be able to easily perform this music. In celebration, Stile Antico has recorded some of the major highlights including William Byrd's Mass for five voices and Ave Verum, Orlando Gibbons' O clap your hands and Almighty and everlasting God, Thomas Morley's Nolo morem peccatoris, Thomas Tallis's Salvator Mundi and In ieiunio et fletu, John Tavener's O splendor gloriae, and Robert White's Portio mea and Christe qui lux es et dies.

The expensive library edition of Tudor Church Music was not a particular financial success and it was trimmed from 20 volumes to 10 volumes. But individual items were available in 'octavo' editions designed to be purchased by choirs, which meant that many items such as Byrd's Ave Verum were freely available for the first time and these practical editions were highly popular. And the influential nature of the edition is indicated by the fact that when Ouxford University Press produced the Oxford Book of Tudor Anthems in 1978, a significant number of the pieces had originally appeared in Tudor Church Music. The works selected for the 1920's publication have effectively defined the standard canon of this music.

Stile Antico start with Byrd's Ave Verum Corpus,  perhaps one of the most famous items from the collection. The choir makes a lovely firm sound, a clear ensemble with a vibrant blend of voices rather than a perfectly smooth blend. They make quite a steady sound, but with an underlying strength to it.

They follow the Byrd with Thomas Tallis's Salvator Mundi, the first of Tallis's two settings of this text,which was originally published in Tallis's joint publication with Byrd, the 1575 Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur. Here performed by Stile Antico with a lovely sense of line and great poise.

Next comes the Kyrie and Gloria from Byrd's Mass for five voices, originally rather daringly published in the early 1590's effectively for the recusant Catholics. It both looks forward and backward, in structure there are nods to early Tudor works like Tavener's Miss Gloria tibi Trinitas but also a very modern engagement with the text. Stlie Antico shape the music beautifully, with finely moulded phrases and a lovely steady line. But whilst this approach works well for the Kyrie, the Gloria seems almost too beautiful and lacks vigour in places.

Though the madrigalist Thomas Morley did write sacred music, Nolo mortem peccatoris is more of a devotional madrigal than a liturgical piece and was probably designed for domestic use. Stile Antico perform it with fine balance and great clarity in the inner parts. Orlando Gibbons O clap our hands together sets words from Psalm 47, a brilliant work given with lightness and rhythmic vitality and a texture which is quite light and delicate.

Next comes another movement from Byrd's Mass for five voices, the Credo which is sung with admirable firmness of line and steadiness. Though great care is taken in the shaping of phrases, there is however not a great sense of meaning to the words. Their overall timing for this movement is 9'55 as opposed to the Cardinall's Musick's rather fleeter 9'15 (a similar comparison can be made with the Gloria where Stile Antico take 5'29 and the Cardinall's Musick take 4'34).

Robert White was a younger contemporary of Thomas Tallis. His psalm motet Portio mea contrasts sections of just two or three voices with full five-voiced music, giving a strong sense of the individual voices with some lovely contrasts of textures. The high soprano part is beautifully taken and you feel that White's work suites Stile Antico's style. His Christe qui lux es et dies is probably an earlier piece, dating from 1550 setting a Compline Hymn alternating plainsong and polyphony. The plainsong has a haunting beauty to it, and the polyphony a lovely rich texture.

Orlando Gibbons Almighty and everlasting God is simpler than O clap our hands together and here Stile Antico tend to rather under play the words. Their performance is profoundly beautiful but with little sense of the text.

These issues reoccur in the next few items. In the Sanctus and Benedictus from Byrd's Mass for five voices Stile Antico gives performances of profound beauty and clarity, but I felt that the tempi were rather too steady throughout and there was little sense of the liturgical context. But this approach pays off in the Benedictus where the sense of beauty counts for a lot.

Thomas Tallis's In ieunio et fletu shows the composer demonstrating his skill, evoking the harmonic instability more associated with Lassus. The result is astonishing. Stile Antico displays stunning control and perfection, but with its very steady choice of speed, the choir seems to be failing to express the real meaning of the words. The harmonic shifts are just not disturbing enough.

As if to prove me wrong, the Agnus Dei from Byrd's Mass for five voices is given in a superbly poised and expressive performance.

John Taverner's O splendor gloriae is a substantial piece, and the oldest work on the disc in which passages for small groups of voices alternate with full choir sections. There are some lovely solo moments, with all the singers exhibiting fine control. Again speeds are steady, giving a sense of a slow unfolding of the music. The results are quite stately with a sculptural quality to the phrases.

The CD booklet contains an article by Matthew O'Donovan which not only puts the music into context, but also explains something of the background and significance to the Carnegie UK Trust's Tudor Church Music edition along with full texts and translations.

This disc contains some of the most beautifully expressive singing that I have heard in a long time, but sometimes I want more. There are times when I want the singers to be more demonstratively engaged with the text and to sing with greater vigour and vibrancy.  But overall the results are a fine celebration of an important publishing milestone. Even if you have these pieces on your library shelves already, this disc deserves a place both for the publication it celebrates and for the stunning control and beauty of Stile Antico's performances.

The Phoenx Rising 0 The Carnegie UK Trust and the revival of Tudor church music

William Byrd (c1540 - 1623) - Ave verum corpus [4.08]
Thomas Tallis (c1505 - 1585) - Salvator mundi (I) [3.20]
William Byrd (c1540 - 1623) - Kyrie Mass for five voices [1.36]
William Byrd (c1540 - 1623) - Gloria Mass for five voices [5.29]
Thomas Morley (1557 - 1602) - Nolo mortem peccatoris [3.13]
Orlando Gibbons (1583 - 1625) - O clap your hands together [5.34]
William Byrd (c1540 - 1623) - Credo Mass for five voices [9.55]
Robert White (c.1538 - 1574) - Portio mea [6.53]
Robert White (c.1538 - 1574) - Christe qui lux es et dies (IV) [6.23]
Orlando Gibbons (1583 - 1625) - Almighty and everlasting God [2.17]
William Byrd (c1540 - 1623) - Sanctus and Benedictus Mass for five voices [9.55]
Thomas Tallis (c1505 - 1585) - In ieiunio et fletu [4.38]
William Byrd (c1540 - 1623) - Agnus Dei Mass for five voices [3.46]
John Taverner (c1490 - 1545) - O splendor gloria [12.53]
Stile Antico
Recorded in November 2012 at St Jude on the Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London

HARMONIA MUNDI HMU807572 1CD [74.34]

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