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Twelve Days of Christmas: Stile Antico's Wondrous Mystery

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A Wondrous Mystery: Renaissance Music for Christmas (Praetorius, Clemens non Papa, Jacob Handl), Stile Antico

(released on October 9, 2015)
HMU807575 | 72'57"
The British choir Stile Antico has earned a spot in my Best of 2015 round-up, not the first time one of their concerts has been singled out in that way. Their new disc is devoted to Christmas music, perfect for your listening through January 6, by Renaissance composers from the Netherlands and farther east. The program is anchored on the motet Pastores quidnam vidistis, by Clemens non Papa, and the setting of the Ordinary of the Mass he derived from it. The group sounds the best in these selections, in five parts of intricately woven counterpoint, while in the more homespun pieces, like some of the Praetorius carol arrangements, individual voices are revealed in less pleasant ways.

Hieronymous Praetorius's delightful setting of the Magnificat is performed here as the prelude to the publication instructs, interpolating the accompanying Christmas carol arrangements (all in same double-choir format) between the verses. This is a practice not uncommon in German-speaking countries, a reminder of the popular nature of the feast of Christmas. The key they sing in for this piece puts the sopranos extremely high; although the intonation is fine, the tone sounds perilous.

In the opening Michael Praetorius piece, Ein Kind geborn in Bethlehem, the effect of the endless verses is mitigated by a pleasing cumulative effect of voices being added, so that it really rollicks by the end, quite dance-like. The two best motet discoveries are by Slovene composer Jacob Handl, beginning with Canite tuba, for five lower voices, which is full of trumpet-like fanfare motifs and features the group's male singers beautifully. The same composer's Mirabile mysterium, which gives its title (translated into English) to this disc, is filled with strange chromatic shifts one associates more with the style of Gesualdo, the piling up of triads from distantly related keys that musicologist Edward Lowinsky identified as "triadic atonality" in the Prophetiae Sibyllarum of Lassus, for example.

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