Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: John Sheppard: Media Vita – Stile Antico

Stile Antico, the world’s most famous early music choral group, have outdone themselves. You probably know them – their most recent album Song of Songs topped the classical charts last year. Their latest is their best yet, a lush, majestic, hypnotic collection of works by cutting-edge sixteenth century British choirmaster John Sheppard. This isn’t the first all-Sheppard album – the Tallis Scholars did one over twenty years ago – but it is unquestionably the best. And hopefully the first of several more. In some ways, Sheppard was your typical hardworking church choir leader – never published during his lifetime, his work was performed by whatever group he happened to be working with…including the singers of the Queen’s Chapel. How could such a high-profile artist have fallen so far into obscurity? Lack of available manuscripts, many with missing parts; widespread availability of other perfectly good material to sing; the stubborn fact that Sheppard’s lavish scores are so challenging; and perhaps most plausibly, the fact that many of Sheppard’s works are in Latin, created for Mary Tudor’s Catholic liturgy, hardly a canon that your typical Anglican choir would have any desire to revisit. Technically speaking, Sheppard went for a giant wall of sound, utilizing six-part harmonies and even greater permutations along with dizzying counterpoint, but the six women and eight men of Stile Antico seem to relish the challenge (you can try this at home – there are scores at the Choral Public Domain Library) .

The centerpiece here is Sheppard’s colossal, haunting, death-fixated Media Vita. In an age when early mortality was the rule rather than the exception, it made sense (Sheppard himself probably never made it to fifty). It’s essentially a plea to be spared from impending death. Opening dramatically and continuing with an unrelenting intensity, the piece goes on for over twenty-five minutes – if you think the Messiah is difficult, try this on for size. What’s most amazing about this is that unlike an instrumental group or rock band, a choir can’t just punch in and record over a mistake: Stile Antico sing this all the way through, live.The other pieces here vividly illustrate the diversity of Sheppard’s compositions, notably the far more lively, soaring and only slightly less titanic call-and-response of the opening antiphon, and a couple of English-language hymnal arrangements which probably date from earlier in Sheppard’s career but already find him pushing the envelope. One of them was contemporaneously transcribed (or perhaps even originally written) as an instrumental for strings, testament to both Sheppard’s popularity during his lifetime as well as the melodic strength of his writing.

Not only is this album exquisitely sung, it is also exquisitely produced. The location where it was recorded doesn’t seem to be common knowledge (maybe the group are keeping it a secret!), but wherever it is, the natural reverb and slow decay time richly enhance the otherworldly – some would say heavenly – sonics.

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March 1, 2010 - Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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