The Phoenix Rising

William BYRD (c.1540-1623)
Ave verum corpus [4:08]
Mass for five voices [21:02]
Orlando GIBBONS (1583-1625)
O clap your hands together [5:34]
Almighty and everlasting God [2:17]
Thomas MORLEY (1557-1602)
Nolo mortem peccatoris [3:13]
Thomas TALLIS (c.1505-1585)
Salvator Mundi (I) [3:20]
In ieiunio et fletu [4:38]
John TAVERNER (c.1490-1545)
O splendor gloriae [12:53]
Robert WHITE (c.1538-1574)
Portio mea [6:53]
Christe qui lux es et dies (IV) [6:23]
Stile Antico
rec. November 2012, St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London
This magical disc was conceived as a tribute to a charitable trust. That it succeeds so triumphantly is mostly a tribute to the music and to the commitment of the artists who give their all in performing it. The ostensible reason for the disc is to commemorate the centenary of the Carnegie UK Trust who, between 1922 and 1929, helped provide the funding for Oxford University Press’s publication of Tudor Church Music (TCM), a ten-volume collection of music by the great English Tudor composers. Before its appearance these composers played only the most marginal role in Britain’s musical life, and the fact that they are now so central is in large part thanks to the appearance and influence of Tudor Church Music. The booklet essay goes some way towards exploring the publication’s impact, as well as giving learned comments on the music itself.
Now that we are so familiar with Tallis, Byrd and, to a lesser extent, Taverner and Gibbons, it is easy to forget how surprising their music must have sounded when it was rediscovered by so many elements of the British choral tradition. However, Stile Antico’s performances do an outstanding job of reawakening your ears to how beautiful and how exciting this music can be. At the very opening of the disc, Byrd’s magical setting of Ave verum corpus sounds fresh and clear. The quality of the performance, as well as the perfectly judged recorded sound, reminded me of just how daring and exciting - dare we say “modern”? - Byrd’s harmonic progressions sound. That composer’s Mass for Five Voices provides the backbone of the disc, its movements interspersed among the other pieces to provide both variety and consistency at the same time.
Stile Antico famously perform without a conductor, underlining the importance they attach to listening to one another and working collaboratively. This approach pays special dividends in music like this which is meant to be simultaneously public and devotional. Tallis’s Salvator Mundi and In ieiunio unfold with gentle majesty, while the two Gibbon extracts flow with mellifluous beauty that brings no loss of clarity.
I also really enjoyed the two works from Robert White, a younger contemporary of Tallis and a composer previously unknown to me. Both have a very public purpose but Christe qui lux est feels much more intimate and devotional with its pleadings for God’s protection and defence, and its combination of plainsong with haunting polyphony. Taverner’s O splendor gloriae provides a majestic conclusion to the disc. A large-scale hymn to Jesus Christ, its large scale and complex polyphony is incredibly impressive, and the text’s heavily scriptural base reminds us that this music was also composed at a time of great religious change where the Reformation was helping to bring about the primacy of the Word.
Throughout the disc the clarity of each individual vocal line is superbly evident, helped by the brilliantly captured sound in the acoustic of St Jude’s church. The Harmonia Mundi engineers have done a great job of ensuring that everything is audible: I listened in 2.0 stereo, but I imagine the SACD sound must be staggering. The clarity of the choir’s diction is also first rate; both in English and in Latin every word is audible. The booklet also contains full sung texts and translations. Yet another feather in Stile Antico’s already resplendent cap.
Simon Thompson
Yet another feather in Stile Antico’s already resplendent cap. 

See also review by John Quinn (September 2013 Recording of the Month)

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