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June 5, 2007

Stile Antico

The Times (UK):

One of the glories of British musical life is the profusion of professional choirs that have transformed notions of how Renaissance and Baroque music could, and perhaps should, be sung. But the best of those ensembles "the Tallis Scholars, the Sixteen, the Monteverdi Choir" have mostly been knocking around for decades. It's as if one particular generation has cornered the market in motets.

So the arrival of some new kids in the cloisters is exciting. Especially as the 12 twentysomething choristers of Stile Antico are not only talented but have fresh ideas about how 16th-century sacred music should be presented.

They can't help but sound what they are: former Oxbridge choral scholars, with all the pluses (wonderfully clear lines, excellent intonation and diction, intelligent dynamics) and one minus (a slightly unvaried timbre) that this implies. But they don�t have a conductor, and that changes everything.

First, they work like chamber musicians: watching each other carefully, achieving cohesion through interaction. Secondly, their interpretations, especially of Byrd�s great multisectional motets, where pacing and mood must be so carefully varied, are done with the conviction and unanimity that comes when an ensemble arrives at its own conclusions, rather than merely bowing to a maestro�s whims.

And thirdly, the absence of the conductor throws the audience�s attention on to the singers, who respond by lifting their heads from their copies and projecting straight at their listeners. That makes a big difference to communication. The next step is to dispense with the copies altogether � certainly in simpler pieces.

This programme mingled Byrd�s anguished polyphony � the great motets of lament that seem to have carried a covert message for the persecuted Catholics of Elizabethan England � with the hymns that Tallis supplied for Archbishop Parker�s psalter, including the celebrated Canon and the tune that inspired Vaughan Williams�s Tallis Fantasia. It was an ingenious mixture; the artful simplicity of the latter contrasted with the majestic complexity of the former.

Of course, such was the pragmaticism and flexibility needed by composers if they were to survive in the perilous 16th century that an equally effective programme could have been devised with simple sacred songs by Byrd and polyphonic epics by Tallis. Perhaps Stile Antico will present that next.

Posted by acapnews at June 5, 2007 10:13 PM