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Music for Compline (Tallis, Byrd, Sheppard), Stile Antico
(released January 16, 2007)
This is the first recording from Harmonia Mundi by an up-and-coming British choir called Stile Antico. Following a trend among chamber orchestras, the group performs without a conductor: in the words of their Web profile, they "rehearse and perform as chamber musicians, each contributing artistically to the musical result." The selection of Tudor polyphony and some plainchant is unified by the fact that it was (almost, with a few qualifications) all intended to be sung during Compline, in my opinion, the most symbolically and textually beautiful service of the Divine Office. The close of the day, the Psalms reserved only for the night (4, 90, 133), the Nunc dimittis (Simeon's canticle from Luke, You now send away your servant in peace), the Marian antiphon, and then the stillness of the Great Silence. For a recently formed group composed of such young musicians, this disc is extraordinarily good (you can listen to a few excerpts at their Web site), and it has already won the Diapason d’Or and the Choc du Monde de la Musique.

The CD opens with a piece that is a favorite of many singers who sing a lot of polyphony, John Sheppard's two settings of the Trinity antiphon Libera nos. The composer's style is thick, a dense thicket of contrapuntal layers, with few of the breaks into homophony or less than full textures used to great effect by Palestrina and others. Stile Antico includes five other Sheppard pieces, none of which I had ever heard before. The group tunes the crushing cross-relations (intended dissonant intervals that arise out of contrapuntal interaction) in the Tallis selections with skill. The greatest composer of those featured here, William Byrd, has only three motets, although they are great ones, including the only setting of the Nunc dimittis. Two other minor composers get single selections, including one hymn setting by Robert White and the longest piece on the disc, by far, Hugh Aston's Marian motet Gaude virgo mater Christi. The only slight disappointment is the singing of the plainchant, which is performed by solo voices or smaller groups, sapped of all its vitality by comparison with the linear-minded, full-voiced polyphonic selections.

One could point out a few tuning issues here and there, but this small group has a beautiful and balanced sound. There are 13 singers credited on this recording, and three of the women have the last name Ashby. Sopranos Helen Ashby and Kate Ashby, who happen to be twins, helped found the group while they were students at Cambridge. Their sister Emma Ashby sings in the alto section, and according to the group's Web site, younger sister Laura Ashby is now the third member of the soprano section. With a group this size, one hardly misses the presence of a conductor, and the intimate nature of the music is certainly suited to a close-knit group able to explore the piano side of the dynamic spectrum. This is warmly recommended listening.

Harmonia Mundi HMU 907419

Stile Antico will perform a concert of music by William Byrd at the York Early Music Festival, on July 11. Their next CD, to be called The Desire of Heavenly Harmonies, will combine English hymns by Tallis and Catholic motets by Byrd. It will be released in early 2008.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for finding this wonderful jewel of a group, Stile Antico. I am purchasing their new CD "Heavenly Harmonies" as we speak. Stile Antico sound is very refreshing and sung with such musical clarity. Their blend is beautiful. Maybe you could influence our friend to listen to this group's approach to singing Byrd over a nice pack of cigerettes and a fine bottle of french bordeaux. I don't think he could resist the heavenly sounds Stile Antico then.