Stile Antico at St. Mary’s

Stile Antico
Photo: Marco Borggreve

Stile Antico in Concert

October 13, 2018 Church of St. Mary the Virgin

By Christian Carey

 

NEW YORK – The first concert in Miller Theatre’s 2018-19 Early Music Series, given in midtown at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, presented the acclaimed choral group Stile Antico from the UK. They have made regular appearances on the Miller series. As is their custom, Stile Antico sang without a conductor in a semicircle facing front. The occasional setup change consists of singers changing formation and, in pieces in which the full ensemble isn’t required, “extra” singers sit down.

 

They sing vibrantly and expressively with a sumptuous sound. The concert program, titled “Elizabeth I, Queen of Muses,” brought together masterworks of Tudor era polyphony and continental repertoire that had passed through the monarch’s orbit. Several of the latter group of works were taken from a gift from one of the Queen’s suitors, Erik XIV of Sweden: a partbook that included pieces by Lassus, Willaert, and Sandrin. The latter’s chanson Doulce Memoire was particularly fetching, performed with gentle grace. The group also sang three solemn and stolid penitential psalm settings by Alfonso Ferrabosco the Elder, an Italian composer who was a member of the Elizabeth’s court, paid a handsome salary for music and, some say, espionage.

 

English music formed the bulk of the program. It included a piece from early in the sixteenth century, Tavener’s  Christe Jesu Bone Pastor, filled with brightly articulate slices of homophony and soaring passages of imitation. From the other end of the chronological spectrum, early in the seventeenth century, Stile Antico offered jaunty renditions of two of John Dowland’s best known ayres: “Now, O now I needs must part” and “Can She Excuse my Wrongs.”

 

The choir is one of the best on the planet for works by Tallis and Byrd. Several of these were performed, capturing a gamut of emotions. Byrd’s “This sweet and merry month of May” is a jubilant madrigal greeting to Elizabeth, while his Attolite porta is a richly attired setting of Psalm 23. “O Lord Make thy servant Elizabeth” is an extraordinary piece, and Stile Antico rendered its elaborate Amen cadence with fulsome power and beauty. Ne irascaris is another facet of Byrd’s art. A recusant Catholic, he composed a collection of motets with texts both coded and charged with defiance. Clearly Byrd was graced with Elizabeth’s favor, otherwise he would have been unlikely to get away with daring pieces like Ne irascaris. The Tallis selection on the program was his worshipful, declamatory Abserge Domine. I could have done with three more Tudor motets and no Ferrabosco, but that’s quibbling.

 

The concert concluded with a group of madrigals written in honor of Elizabeth, taken from “The Triumphs of Oriana,” a collection of 25 madrigals by 23 composers. After sterling renderings of “The lady Oriana” by John Wilbye (Oriana is a poetic title for Elizabeth) and “Fair Nymphs I heard one telling, the last, “As Vesta was, from Latmos hill descending,” by Thomas Weelkes, displayed the group’s vocal prowess at its finest, with high-ranging lines and overlapping melismatic passages converging to thrilling effect. Stile Antico’s annual visits to New York could easily be double or trebled: they have developed a strong following here and the reasons for this were amply demonstrated on 13 October at St. Mary’s.

 

  • Christian Carey writes regularly for Tempo, Musical America, and Sequenza 21.

Choir of Clare College Celebrates Epiphany (CD Review)

Mater ora fillium: Music for Epiphany

Choir of Clare College, Cambridge; Michael Papadopoulos, organ; Graham Ross, director

Harmonia Mundi CD HUM907653

On the Christian calendar, tomorrow (January 6th) is the Feast of the Epiphany. There are several aspects to Epiphany. First, it is the “Twelfth Day” after Christmas, and so ends the celebrations of that merry season. Second, it is the commemoration of Jesus the Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist. Finally, in the spirit of ending a party with a magnificent and mysterious flourish, it is also commemorates the Visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus.

It is this third aspect of Epiphany that has most often drawn composers to create music commemorating the festival. On the Harmonia Mundi CD Mater ora filium: Music for Epiphany, Graham Ross presents a program of primarily sixteenth and twentieth century selections. It is Ross’s seventh such recording for HM that is based around one of the events or seasons on the liturgical calendar. Here the interested believer may find much music that, in addition to being entertaining, informs them about the history of the liturgy. However, Christian and secularist alike can enjoy the high level of musicality and sheer beauty of the voices of the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge.

The hymn singing alone, accompanied with rousing verve by organist Michael Papadopoulos, is remarkable. It includes favorites like “As With Gladness, Men of Old” and “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed,” as well as a lovely rendition of “O worship the Lord in the beauty of Holiness!” Renaissance era motets are well represented. Omnes de Saba by Orlande de Lassus is a particularly jubilant album opener. Purity of tone from sopranos and sepulchral notes from basses are on display, and carefully balanced, in Jean Mouton’s Nesciens Mater. Clarity of contrapuntal lines feature in Clemens non Papa’s Magi veniunt ab oriente and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s Tribus miraculis ornatum. The varied tone colors brought to bear in William Byrd’s Ecce advenit dominator Dominus provide a sense of mysterious grandeur appropriate to the festival. Careful tuning of cross relations, as well as seamless alternation between the rhythms of chant and polyphony, supplies listeners to John Sheppard’s Regis Tharsis with a particularly evocative glimpse into another era’s harmonic and rhythmic sensibilities.

Balancing the early music selections are a number of fine pieces from the twentieth century. A standout is Long, Long Ago by Herbert Howells; an initially tender melody gradually rises to an exciting climax, juxtaposed with a steady buildup of added note chords. Another is Benedicamus Domino by Peter Warlock, in which an intricate swath of modal melodies is set against strongly articulated tutti chords. Despite the considerable challenges it poses, Illuminare, Jerusalem, by Judith Weir, is taken at a spirited gallop. Judith Bingham’s alluring Epiphany pits a colorful organ part against sinuous vocal chromaticism. Lennox Berkeley’s I sing of a maiden is delivered with haunting delicacy. All of this is capped off by the large-scale title work, a tour de force of choral writing by Arnold Bax.

Impressive performances throughout, combined with thoughtful programming, makes Mater ora filium the ideal recording for Twelfth Night!

Tallis Scholars at St. Mary’s (Concert Review)

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Tallis Scholars at St. Mary’s: Bass Hit

Sequenza 21

By Christian Carey

 

NEW YORK – On December 10th, the Tallis Scholars found themselves in a bit of a quandary. Scheduled to give their annual Renaissance Christmas concert as part of Miller Theatre’s Early Music Series at Church of St. Mary the Virgin, the ten-voice ensemble was decimated to nine. Long-time member bass Robert Macdonald was ill and had been rendered voiceless. Peter Phillips, the Tallis Scholars’ director, quipped from onstage that unless he sang, which the rest of the singers “felt unwise,” the group’s other bass, Tim Whiteley, would have to go it alone. MacDonald did not appear to be the only member suffering. During the course of the concert, there were several sniffles onstage and far more water being chugged than is the group’s usual practice. Gamely they had decided to appear regardless.

 

There was yet another wrinkle to the story. During the first half of the concert the Tallis Scholars had planned to feature Cipriano de Rore’s Missa Praeter rerum seriem, a composition that includes many divisi, including a number of passages where each bass has his own part. A substitution was in order, and the solution was a welcome one: Giovanni Perluigi da Palestrina’s Missa Assumpta est Maria. One of the composer’s last works, it demonstrates his movement from a more modal to a quasi-tonal harmonic method of organization. Although outnumbered, Whiteley never seemed vocally outgunned. Indeed, the Tallis Scholars’ long association helped them to rebalance their forces in seemingly effortless fashion. The clarity of lines and fine-tuned chords which resulted were truly remarkable sounding.

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Although the audience had been deprived of De Rore on the first half, the second provided some compensation with a sprightly, joyous rendition of his Hodie Christus natus est setting. Magnificat Primi Toni, by Tomás Luis de Victoria, features antiphonal division of the choir into two four-part units. Fortunately for this occasion it doesn’t include bass divisi, but there are some stellar passages for high sopranos that arched angelically upward, as well as sturdy tutti declamation.

 

Victoria, Palestrina, and even de Rore are familiar composers to many Renaissance listeners, but the next two selections on the program, both Salve Regina settings, were composed by figures who aren’t yet “household names.” Based on the quality of these works alone, they should be. Claudin de Sermisy’s Salve Regina was filled with imitative counterpoint, including four-voice canons and fetching duets, which were delivered with abundant precision by the Tallis Scholars. Hernando de Franco, a Spanish composer who resided in Mexico, must have enjoyed setting the Salve Regina text – or at the very least been frequently requested to do so – there are five of them attributed to him. Here, chant was weaved into the fabric of the piece, interspersing thick-voiced passages of contrapuntal activity.

 

The concert concluded with O Splendor Gloriae, a composition that appears to have been a collaboration between John Taverner and Christopher Tye. The piece never feels like a ragtag assemblage, but there are significant differences among its various sections. O Splendor has a long-ish text, describing the Creation story from the Fall to Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension. Even after such a taxing program, and under harried circumstances, the Tallis Scholars brought a warm sound to bear here. This is no mean feat, as the work contains a number of high-lying lines. In addition to the sopranos who sustained these, Whiteley must be commended for his efforts. The bass brought sonorous support to the work’s chordal passages and hardy declamation during sections for subsets of the ensemble. It was a testament to the Tallis Scholars’ consummate professionalism that, despite challenging circumstances,  they made such stirring music.