Wednesday 20 November 2013

Stile Antico at the Cadogan Hall

Stile Antico
This summer the vocal ensemble Stile Antico released their disc Phoenix Rising (see my review) in celebration of the centenary of the Carnegie UK Trust and celebrating the influential edition of Tudor Church Music published by the trust between 1922 and 1929. This publication effectively enshrined the canon of Tudor church music for choirs. 
Stile Antico - Phoenix Rising 
In Stile Antico's concert at the Cadogan Hall on 19 November 2013, as part of the Choral at Cadogan series, the ensemble performed music from the publication. Whilst in a sense this might have been the concert of the CD, this is music which responds to live performance, especially in performances as controlled and finely wrought as these. The centre-piece of the programme was William Byrd's Mass for five voices, and alongside this were motets, anthems and sacred madrigals by William Byrd, Thomas Tallis, Thomas Morley, Orlando Gibbons, Robert White and John Taverner.

They opened with one of the best known and best loved of pieces in the whole repertoire, William Byrd's Ave verum corpus (which had sold over 16,000 copies by 1930). The ensemble made a fine, full sound with finely shaped phrasing and a wonderfully full, well nourished tone.

The basic group consists of 12 singers (three each of sopranos, female altos, tenor and basses) and they perform conductorless, standing in a u shape with the voice parts mixed up, giving a superb sense of blend and interplay between the parts, making it seem as if we are eavesdropping on a performance rather than being sung to. For the performances of Byrd's Mass for five voices, which is written for soprano, alto, two tenors and bass they were joined by an extra tenor. The group's basic sound is quite strong, and very choral, but because they do not use a conductor the interaction between the parts is very much akin to that of a smaller vocal ensemble.

The Kyrie from the Mass for five voices received a fine stately and well shaped performance. It was immediately followed by the Gloria, where we had a great sense of line, lovely interaction between the parts and a lively pointing of the cross-rhythms and syncopations. The pace was on the steady side, and though there were lively articulations in the details I did wonder whether a we could have done with a little vigour.

The group makes a well modulated sound, preserving a balance between characterful differentiation of the parts and homogeneous blend. Throughout the concert it was the firm, rather direct sense of line which impressed most.

Thomas Morley's Nolo mortem peccatoris is a piece which combines Latin and English texts and it was probably a sacred madrigal. Here it received a performance of grave beauty. For Orlando Gibbons O Clap your hands together the singers reduced to just eight, one per part, bringing out the madrigalian liveliness of the work, with superb rhythmic pointing and a lively interplay between the two choirs.

The Credo from William Byrd's mass combined firmness of shape with firmness of purpose. There were some beautiful moments, and the Crucifixus was particularly lovely and the work steadily grew in power. But the adjective steady seemed to be predominant and I would have liked a little more excitement and drama in the work, perhaps a greater sense of the real meaning of the words.

Either side of the interval the group performed a pair of lesser known pieces, motets by Robert White deliberately included to demonstrate that the Tudor Church Music edition still has gems to be discovered. White's Portio Mea mixed passages for solo voices in duets and trios, with richly textured polyphony from the whole choir. The solo passages were admirably firm, strong and direct and the polyphony gave us the chance to hear the early Tudor use of a high treble part for the first time, beautifully and flexibly performed by the group's first sopranos. Christe qui lux es IV alternates chant and polyphony, setting a lovely Compline hymn. The men's performance of the chant was finely done, so much so that I'd have been perfectly happy with that! White's polyphonic verses use widely spaced vocal lines and the ensemble provided a nicely responsive texture.

Gibbons well known anthem Almighty and everlasting God came next, this was beautifully shaped but suffered a little from poor diction, I would have liked the words to count for a lot more. The Sanctus from Byrd's Mass for five voices was quite coolly controlled, finely done but without a sense of spiritual excitement which can be brought to the work. Though my attitude to the music is perhaps coloured by the fact that I perform it liturgically at at Roman Catholic Church, and that many people will have appreciated the grave beauty of Stile Antico's performance on its own terms.

Tallis's astonishing motet In ieiunio et fletu was performed by 10 lower voices, without sopranos, giving the work a richly evocative blend. This was a finely crafted, rather lovely performance, one which concentrated on the beauties of Tallis's score rather than bringing out the Lassus-like harmonic daring. Thomas Weelkes' anthem Gloria in excelsis Deo had a lively interaction between the parts and great vitality.

The group's performance of the Byrd mass came into its own with the Agnus Dei where the sober beauty of their performance made for a very moving experience. Finally we were treated to John Taverner's O splendor gloriae, one of the earliest pieces in the programme, where Taverner writes a sequence of trios and duets, punctuated with polyphony for the ensemble. Again, the group showed its flexibility with different voices taking the solo lines, giving us some wonderfully straight, direct singing complemented by the rich sound of the tutti.

The programme was introduced from the stage by tenor Andrew Griffiths, neatly combining information and humour in his presentations.

The Cadogan Hall was pretty full and the audience warmly responsive, so were were treated to one encore, a performance of Palestrina's Exsultate Deo full of verve and vitality.

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