Thursday, December 15, 2011

Review: Stile Antico

Dec. 14, University of Richmond

When Oscar Wilde wrote that life imitates art, he coined a clever aphorism but demonstrated his ignorance of English history – specifically, religious history under the Tudor monarchs. Listening to the British vocal ensemble Stile Antico perform liturgical music of Thomas Tallis, William Byrd and their contemporaries, one could easily forget that Christianity in 16th-century Britain was a death struggle between Catholics and Protestants, accompanied by epithets, burnings, beheadings and general mayhem.

Stile Antico’s Advent-Christmas program, “Puer natus est” (“A son is born”), centered on Tallis’ unfinished Mass for seven parts by that name; sections of the Mass were interspersed with Byrd’s four propers for the fourth Sunday of Advent.

This was audience-friendly, if not quite fair to Tallis. His Mass, introduced in 1554, was written in the
plainchant-rooted “old” style, circumscribed in both pacing (adagio to andante and back) and expressive range (reverential and awed). An uninterrupted performance of the piece would have been sublime, but also might have sent listeners into a blissful stupor.

Byrd’s works, later in vintage and more musically concentrated and adventurous, added needed animation and variety. Robert White’s Magnificat and John Sheppard’s “Verbum caro,” which ended the two halves of the program, added still more harmonic adventure and playful joyousness to the proceedings.

Stile Antico sings in a style that is historically informed, yet not angelically denatured, as so many early music vocal groups tend to sound. This group’s 13 voices blend beautifully, but retain their individual characters – especially the bass voices, with their hint of grit – and audibly feed off one another’s energy and expressiveness.

In this performance, the singers, singly and collectively, pushed the expressive limits of the Tallis Mass, treated Byrd’s vocal weavings with spontaneity, and positively reveled in the intricacies and surprising eccentricities of the White and Sheppard works.