Puer natus est - Tudor Music
for Advent and Christmas Thomas TALLIS (c.1505-1585) Videte
miraculum [11:39] John TAVERNER (c.1490-1545) Audivi
vocem de caelo [4:09] William BYRD (c.1540-1623) Rorate
caeli desuper(Gradualia I, 1605) [4:42] Thomas TALLIS Gloria (Missa
Puer natus est) [9:28] William BYRD Tollite portas
(Gradualia I) [2:10] Thomas TALLIS Sanctus &
Benedictus (Missa Puer natus est) [8:55] William BYRD Ave Maria (Gradualia
I) [2:08] Thomas TALLIS Agnus Dei (Missa
Puer natus est) [8:23] William BYRD
Ecce virgo concipiet (Gradualia I) [2:15] Robert WHITE (c.1538-1574) Magnificat
[13:51] Plainchant Puer natus est [1:11] John SHEPPARD (c.1515-1558) Verbum
rec. January 2010, All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London. DSD
Latin texts, English, French, German translations included
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU
The start of this disc is arresting. That may sound a strange
thing to say, given the nature of the repertoire but I can’t
think of a more appropriate word. After the plainsong intonation
that begins Tallis’s luminous Videte miraculum the polyphony
starts gently, even delicately. The sheer beauty of the singing
is a harbinger of what’s to follow over the next seventy-eight
minutes. The piece itself is quite wonderful and so is the performance.
In his booklet note Matthew O’Donovan, one of the singers, says
that this Tallis motet “effuses an extraordinary sense of rapt
adoration, stillness and mystery; to hear it is to stand awestruck
before a fine painting of the Virgin and Child.” I cannot but
agree yet it requires a performance of the quality of this present
one to bring the music truly to life. For a Christian believer
this rapt music surely illuminates the Mystery of the Incarnation;
and the non-believer can appreciate it just as much as an expression
of high art. In this very special performance everything seems
just right: the chant sections are fluently delivered while
the polyphony is superbly controlled. This is one of the most
beautiful accounts of any piece of music that I’ve heard in
This disc is my first encounter with the British ensemble Stile
Antico, though I have read appreciative comments about them
in the press. Like the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra they don’t
have a conductor but the precision and unanimity of their singing
on this disc would be envied by many a conductor. The core membership
of the group consists of twelve singers although I think they
were joined by a handful of guests on this occasion because
fourteen singers are listed in the booklet. Incidentally, the
three altos are all female. The group produces a lovely, even
sound and throughout this disc tuning, ensemble and blend seemed
impeccable to me. They also sing with great clarity – every
line is crystal clear – and the balance between the voices and
parts is superb – and this is all the more remarkable when you
consider that they don’t have a conductor to regulate the performances
as they proceed. If I have a criticism it would be that the
music making is a bit too even. It might be objected
that the style is a little too calm and collected but the sheer
beauty of sound does tend to disarm criticism.
The programme is built around Tallis’s seven-part Christmas
Mass, Puer natus est. The setting is incomplete and for
this recording Stile Antico use a new edition and reconstruction
of the score by Sally Dunkley. It’s a marvellous setting. Much
of the music is expansive and outgoing, as befits a mass setting
for one of the great feasts of the Christian calendar. It was
almost certainly composed during the reign of Queen Mary Tudor
(1553-1558), that brief period that marked the last years of
Catholic monarchy in England, and the music is full of confidence.
The Gloria is given a splendidly assured performance by Stile
Antico and I particularly admired the way in which each part
is perfectly weighted against the others in the expressive ‘Qui
tollis peccata mundi’ section. Later, at ‘Quoniam tu solus’,
the music gathers momentum for the closing section and it’s
noteworthy that these singers increase the excitement without
compromising the smooth, splendidly blended textures. The music
of the Sanctus is impressive and finely modulated while the
serene, prayerful Agnus Dei is brought off quite beautifully.
The sections of the Mass are interwoven with four appropriate
pieces from Byrd’s Gradualia. These are all prayers from
the Proper of the Votive Mass for the Virgin Mary during Advent.
Their inclusion in this programme is welcome on several counts.
In the first place, the music itself is superb: each piece is
a marvel of concision and expressiveness. Furthermore, each
piece is placed within the Tallis setting at what would be the
correct juncture in a liturgical celebration of the Mass. But
for me one of the most interesting aspects of the inclusion
of these pieces by Byrd is the contrast they afford with the
Tallis mass. Some fifty years had passed between the composition
of that mass setting and the compilation of the Gradualia
and England had changed irrevocably. A Catholic country
had become firmly Protestant and while Tallis had been able
to write for a public celebration of the Mass these particular
pieces by Byrd were designed for use by recusant Catholic congregations.
So, though Tollite portas is a forthright offering, for
the most part we find that a more intimate, less public tone
is struck by Byrd. Thus the lovely Ave Maria is poised
and devotional while the exquisite Ecce virgo concipiet
communicates gentle wonder and awe. Stile Antico’s performances
of these four little gems are exceptionally fine.
Robert White’s Magnificat is a wide-ranging and substantial
piece. It’s an alternatim setting and in the polyphonic
passages White cleverly varies the scoring of each section so
that while some are in as many as six parts he often uses much
smaller forces. This means that the textures are constantly
changing as the piece evolves. The performance by Stile Antico
is assured and colourful.
Their recital began with a wonderful piece, superbly performed.
Their account of Sheppard’s Verbum caro ends the programme
with comparable distinction. It’s exquisite, full of a sense
of calm joy and the performance is absolutely superb.
This is a wonderful disc. I enjoyed it from start to finish
and marvelled at the quality of the performances. Other production
values are as high as the quality of the music and the singing.
The note by Matthew O’Donovan combines erudition and clarity
and is very readable. His note is contained in a beautifully
produced booklet, which contains some fine illustrations as
well as clearly printed texts and translations. Finally, one’s
pleasure in the music-making is greatly enhanced by the excellent
quality of the recorded sound. I listened to the disc as a conventional
CD and thought the recording was most impressive but I’d love
to hear it with the even greater definition of SACD.
I said earlier on that this was my first encounter with Stile
Antico: I shall make sure it’s not my last. I can only urge
you to acquire this exceptionally fine disc and let the radiance
of the music and the performances illuminate your Christmas.
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