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In a Strange Land – Elizabethan Composers in Exile
Stile Antico
rec. 2018, All Hallows’ Church, Gospel Oak, London
Latin texts and English & French translations included
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902266 [71:34]

The title of this programme comes from Psalm 137: ‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ Appropriately, these very words are set in the motet by Philippe de Monte and in William Byrd’s motet which follows it on Stile Antico’s programme. The “exile” which is referred to is that endured by many of the composers here represented during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) and especially after 1570 when Pope Pius V issued his bull, Regnans in excelsis in which he excommunicated the Queen, proclaiming her a heretic and a pretender. This placed Elizabeth’s Catholic subjects in a dire quandary: should they continue in allegiance to their sovereign or should they follow the lead of the Pope, thereby effectively committing treason? Many English Catholics kept their heads down as best they could, retaining secular loyalty to their Queen to the best of their ability while, as recusants, continuing to practice their Catholic faith in secret. That was an extremely risky course of action and while some got away with it, many did not and paid for their Catholicism with their lives. Quite a number of English Catholics made their way abroad and lived in physical exile, including some of the musicians represented on this programme. William Byrd stayed at home and managed not just to survive but to flourish. However, in a great deal of his sacred music we can hear evidence of the internalised exile that he experienced.
In his excellent notes, Matthew O’Donovan says that although John Dowland spent a lot of time abroad, he doesn’t really fit the ‘religious exile’ profile. I have to confess that I have never warmed to Dowland’s music, finding his generally melancholy output of lute songs, for instance, a bit dreary, though I hasten to acknowledge that that’s probably a failure of appreciation on my part. However, the two pieces on this programme, which are both consort arrangements of lute songs, made me reconsider. Perhaps it’s the fact that recasting the lute parts for voices imparts some extra richness? Whatever the reason, I enjoyed Flow my tears and In this trembling shadow and I was particularly struck by the chromatic writing in the latter.

Byrd’s Tristitia et anxietas is from his Cantiones sacrae of 1589 – as is Quomodo cantabimus. Tristitia et anxietas takes its text from two sources. The first part is from the Lamentations of Jeremiah and Byrd responds to the sorrowful text with very intense music. The second part uses a verse from Psalm 112, beginning ‘Sed tu, Domine, qui non derelinques’ (But you, Lord, who do not forsake). This section is somewhat more hopeful, though even here Byrd seems to strike a note of caution. The performance is very fine indeed.

Also in the programme are two Marian anthems by Peter Philips. Though these are pieces written in his long exile in the Netherlands, these are celebratory anthems in honour of the Virgin and Stile Antico sing them with verve.

There’s one composer from continental Europe and he’s there for a very particular reason. We read in the notes that the Flemish composer Philippe de Monte was Kapellmeister to the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximillian II (1564-1576). It appears that at some stage he sent Byrd a copy of his motet Super Flumina Babylonis, in which he set words from Psalm 137. Byrd then proceeded to “reply” by setting verses from the same Psalm in his Quomodo cantabimus. The motet by de Monte is a fine piece but Byrd’s response to the Psalm verses is touched by greatness. Both pieces are eloquently sung and it’s good to hear them back-to-back.

One modern piece finds its way int the programme: The Phoenix and the Turtle by Huw Watkins. This piece was commissioned for Stile Antico and they premiered it in 2014: I don’t know if this is the composition’s first recording. Watkins has chosen to set a poem by Shakespeare, which describes the funeral rites of a phoenix and a turtle dove. As Matthew O’Donovan remarks, “on the surface... [it is] …a poem about the death of ideal love.” However, he goes on to say that there is a view in some circles that Shakespeare’s poem is in fact an allegory about Catholic martyrs and specifically St Anne Line, martyred in 1601 and her husband, Roger, who died – perhaps not as a martyr – shortly before her. If that theory is correct then Watkins’ piece fits into the programme nicely. The poem is in two parts of unequal length, the second part being ‘Threnos’ (Funeral song). Watkins has written an interesting piece and his composition serves as a salutary reminder that we all respond to words – and music – differently. Had I not heard Watkins’ music and read the words in isolation I would have assumed that a musical setting of the first part of the poem would probably have involved fairly slow-moving music of mourning and/or reflection. Watkins has other ideas, though. His music is very busy and full of energy. The notes suggest he’s evoking “the busy hustle and bustle of funeral preparations”. The pace starts to slow just before Watkins moves into his setting of the ‘Threnos’. That section itself is slow and poignant.

The final work on Stile Antico’s programme is the setting of the Lamentations by Robert White. This music isn’t as well known as the two sets of Lamentations by Thomas Tallis but, my goodness, it deserves to be. White sets six verses of Lamentations and he also sets the Hebrew letter that precedes each one. The music to which each letter is set is different while there’s great variety also in the music to which the verses themselves are set. White responds to the words very keenly and so, for instance, the second verse is very dramatic while there’s great urgency in the music – and performance – of the fourth verse. Part way through and again right at the end White sets the refrain ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convertere….’ The first time his music is very sorrowful; the second time the tone is more beseeching. This is a magnificent set of Lamentations and it’s superbly performed by Stile Antico.

This is a very thoughtfully constructed programme containing wonderful music. I’ve heard most of Stile Antico’s previous discs and, unfailingly, I’ve been impressed not only by the sheer quality of their singing but also by the intelligence and understanding with which they approach the music. This latest release is right up to the standard that they’ve established. They’ve been beautifully recorded in the acoustic of All Hallows’ Church. Producer Jeremy Summerly and engineer Brad Michel have presented the performances in excellent, sympathetic sound which reproduces the music with becoming clarity and an ideal amount of space around the voices. Matthew O’Donovan, one of Stile Antico’s basses, always writes the booklet notes for the ensemble’s discs. As ever, these notes are expert and highly readable.
John Quinn

Previous review: Simon Thompson

John Dowland (1563-1626): Flow my tears [5:10]
William Byrd (1540-1623): Tristitia et anxietas [10:34]
Richard Dering (c.1580-1630): Factum est silentium [2:25]
John Dowland: In this trembling shadow [3:46]
Peter Philips (c.1560-1628): Gaude Maria / Virgo prudentissima [5:22]
Philippe de Monte (1521-1603): Super Flumina Babylonis [5:28]
William Byrd: Quomodo cantabimus [7:41]
Peter Philips: Regina caeli laetare [2:34]
Huw Watkins (b. 1976): The Phoenix and the Turtle [5:46]
Robert White (c.1538-1574): Lamentations [22:41]

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