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Stile Antico's Desire of Heavenly Harmonies

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Heavenly Harmonies (music by Tallis and Byrd), Stile Antico

(released on March 11, 2008)
Harmonia Mundi HMU 807463
The maiden release of the recently formed British choral group Stile Antico, called Music for Compline, was one of my favorite discs of last year. Harmonia Mundi is about to release their second disc, Heavenly Harmonies, 78 minutes of gorgeously sung and recorded Tudor polyphony. It is already highly praised, receiving warm reviews, as well as, soon, the April 2008 Diapason d'Or. The concept combines the two poles of the Tudor period, Protestant and Catholic, with Tallis's simple pieces for Archbishop Parker's rhymed psalter and Byrd's impassioned polyphony for the Latin Mass (motets from Cantiones sacrae and some of the propers for the Mass of Pentecost from Gradualia). Musically, Byrd wins the compositional contest hands down, but his teacher's homophonic settings of the English rhymed psalms can be devastatingly effective (Why fum'th in fight? and Expend, O Lord, my plaint of word are two good examples).

The disc presents the pieces in alternation, which provides the opportunity to compare the two styles directly. (It would be interesting to compare Latin motets that set the same psalm text as corresponding rhymed psalm settings, but this may not even be possible.) Tallis has the more modal vocabulary, with horizontally conceived lines often clashing vertically in cross-relations, sometimes to bizarre harmonic effect (as in God grant with grace). Byrd's polyphonic style is so much less reserved than Palestrina, for example, with a more dramatic use of angular writing. Stile Antico treats some of the motets in an almost madrigalistic way, choosing fast tempi (Vigilate, nescitis enim and Exsurge, Domine, for example) that make the vocal lines pop off the page in a more virtuosic way than you might associate with this music.

In the insightful liner notes, Matthew O'Donovan (one of the group's basses) points out that many of the Latin texts Byrd chose for his motets reflect the propagandistic spirit of Catholics in hiding. In line with that observation, the secunda pars of Ne irascaris, Domine is sung here with the whispered intensity of the faithful seeing the holy city laid waste. The contextualization of the music, connecting each piece with its Biblical source and/or liturgical function, is historically important. The only text that is not identified in the booklet is one of the most interesting, Tribulationes civitatum. It is a responsory from the book of Judith, based not on the Vulgate but on an earlier Vetus Latina translation (studied by my beloved dissertation director, Prof. Ruth Steiner, in an article about the Gregorian responsories based on texts from the Book of Judith -- the Latin texts of the liturgy often bear vestigial traces of ante-Vulgate Latin translations).

Similar reservations about Stile Antico's first recording, minor intonation issues, should also be expressed here. Unusually, there is a growl present in the bass sound in louder passages that prevents some final chords from locking firmly into place. If you already own the Tallis Scholars' excellent recording of all of the Tallis English anthems, there is some overlap here, but the quality of the performances is high enough to justify doubling, and some of the Byrd motets are rare enough in other recordings. Stile Antico is now known outside of Great Britain and will be performing some concerts on the European continent, but not yet in the United States. Their new concert program, a selection of polyphonic settings of the Song of Songs, promises to be worth the wait if it eventually makes it to disc.

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