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Briefly Noted: In a Strange Land

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In a Strange Land: Elizabethan Composers in Exile, Stile Antico

(released on January 11, 2019)
Harmonia Mundi HMM902266 | 71'10"
We have been following the British choir Stile Antico for over a decade at Ionarts. They are the inheritors of the work of the Tallis Scholars among the younger generation of early music singers, and each CD they release, especially of music from the English Renaissance, has been exquisite. Their latest disc is no exception, in pieces by William Byrd, Peter Phillips, and Robert White. The theme of this program is especially poignant: it brings together composers who found themselves alienated, either in foreign lands (John Dowland, Peter Phillips, Richard Dering) or as Catholics in Protestant England (William Byrd, Robert White).

The choir goes somewhat outside its comfort zone with the affecting part-song arrangements of lute songs by Dowland, Flow, My Tears and In this trembling shadow cast. The results are impeccably balanced homophony, with crunchy cross-relations underscoring emotional peaks. The same is true of a modern piece, The Phoenix and the Turtle by Huw Watkins, premiered by Stile Antico in 2014 and set to an eccentric text possibly revealing the Catholic sympathies of one William Shakespeare. In that context we must place the impassioned dissonances of Bird's ultra-personal motet Tristitia et anxietas or of Quomodo cantabimus, the same composer's musical response to Philippe de Monte's motet Super flumina Babylonis, both about people marooned among non-believers oppressing them.

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