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Briefly Noted: 'Tune Thy Musicke'

available at Amazon
Tune Thy Musicke to Thy Hart,
Stile Antico, Fretwork

(released on February 14, 2012)
HMU 807554 | 64'45"
We have been fans of the relatively new British choral ensemble Stile Antico for some time. Their recordings have all had the two qualities we cherish in early music recordings, unusual repertoire choices in top-notch performances. The group made a noteworthy Washington debut last year and, as noted in my Season Preview, will return next spring, this time in the superior acoustic of the Library of Congress. Their new recording stays with the sort of music that is their specialty, early English polyphony, sung here with a group of just twelve voices. The ensemble's harmonious balance and immaculate vowel unity and intonation are heard in many of these pieces, many of them well worth discovering -- Robert Ramsey's How Are the Mighty Fall'n, Thomas Tallis's Purge Me, O Lord, John Amner's A Stranger Here, Giovanni Croce's From Profound Centre of my Heart (an English-language adaptation of his six-part penitential psalm setting), John Dowland's I Shame at My Unworthiness, even Thomas Campion's simple part-song Never Weather-Beaten Sail. The two selections by Thomas Tomkins, O Praise the Lord and the heart-rending When David Heard, suffer just slightly from a slight stridency of tone that pushes the group's delicate balance off-kilter. The most substantial selection, John Browne's Jesu, Mercy, How May This Be?, is a little austere and monochromatic for its length, although it sets a rather lovely rhymed devotional text.

Stile Antico, quite admirably, goes a little off its well-beaten track by partnering here with the fine viol consort Fretwork, whose recordings we have also admired. This makes possible the inclusion of some verse anthems that combine instrumental parts for viols with solo lines -- John Amner's tender Christmas scene O Ye Little Flock, William Byrd's impassioned lament Why Do I Use My Paper, Ink and Pen? (a setting of Henry Walpole's response to having saintly blood spattered on his white doublet at the brutal execution of Catholic martyr Edmund Campion), and Orlando Gibbons's See, See, the Word Is Incarnate -- as well as three settings of the In Nomine counterpoint, for viols alone. These pieces are rarely enough heard, especially the anthems with viols, that these performances are well worth hearing. As sometimes happens with choral groups who are so perfectly balanced, the solo contributions are not necessarily as beautiful, with the exception of the gorgeous high tenor voice of Benedict Hymas in the Byrd piece, one of the more exceptional works in that extraordinary composer's catalog. With such beautiful music, one hardly needs a reason to program it, but the premise presented here is as good as any. These pieces were all composed for private devotion, that is, for groups of regular Christians in their homes -- !!!! -- rather than professional choristers in chapels. Have a listen and weep for the death of musical literacy.

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