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A Christmas Album for Everybody

We finally found a Christmas album we like. Optimistic, anthemic and upbeat, Stile Antico’s new album Puer Natus Est is Renaissance choral music at its happiest and most un-gothic. It’s not particularly Christmasy and it doesn’t evoke images of blazing chestnuts, but it also doesn’t evoke images of catacombs full of dead monks (fans of Joy Division will have to look elsewhere). Subtitled “Tudor Music for Advent and Christmas,” it’s a festive holiday album for everyone, and at this point in history, far removed from its original context, it’s essentially nondenominational unless you speak Latin. It’s a mass that never would or could have happened, spanning the centuries, interpolating segments of Thomas Tallis’ unfinished Christmas mass, Puer Natus Est with selections from William Byrd’s Gradualia, a comprehensive and imaginative series of plainchant arrangements for the various church holidays. The fourteen-piece ensemble – the world’s most popular Renaissance vocal choir – blend voices more soaringly and considerably less hauntingly than on their death-fixated previous cd, the John Sheppard collection Media Vita.

Tallis’ Videte Miraculum makes a good natured “look what we have here,” in Latin, a characteristically rich arrangement lushly performed with a brief, stark solo for tenor. The oldest piece here, John Taverner’s sixteenth century Audivi Vocem de Caelo (I Heard a Voice in the Sky), with its bright high harmonies, may have been written exclusively for the choirboys. A hint of the season reveals itself in Tallis’ Gloria; contrasting austere and warmer folk melodies appear in later Byrd selections: the roots of Fairport Convention! The dramatic major/minor shifts of Tallis’ Sanctus et Benedictus pair off against the mysterious grandeur of Byrd’s Ave Maria; a rousing, anthemic holiday theme finally appears at the end of Tallis’ Agnus Dei. The second-oldest piece here, Robert White’s Magnificat, is the most exuberant, the contrast between the crystalline highs of the sopranos and the charcoal and chocolate of the lower registers at its most striking here. The album concludes with a work by one of the group’s favorite composers, John Sheppard. Translated as the Holy Word, its harmonic complexity and slowly unwinding  resolutions probably make more sense in this century than when they were written practically half a millennium ago. The album is out just in time for the holidays on Harmonia Mundi.

November 17, 2010 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Album of the Day 11/11/10

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Thursday’s album is #810:

Sacred Music in the Renaissance, Volume 1 – The Tallis Scholars: Finest Recordings 1980-1989

Conventional wisdom is that the audience for Renaissance vocal music is pretty much limited to those who sing it, and who attend churches where it is performed. One look at the crowds who come out for this sort of thing disproves that theory: the appeal of early music transcends everything, including time. This collection is only the second to make its debut at this site on this list. It’s a staggeringly comprehensive five-disc set including some of the most stunning, epic choral works of the Middle Ages as well as an entire cd devoted to the work of seminal British composer Thomas Tallis, for whom the group is named. The Tallis Scholars are hardly the only ensemble to sing these works, but their influence as performers, popularizers and archivists rescuing treasures largely unheard for decades or even centuries cannot be underestimated. Highlights include a surprisingly brisk, vividly energetic performance of John Sheppard’s towering, death-fixated Media Vita and Tallis’ serpentine suite Spem in Alium along with shorter pieces, both iconic and lesser-known, by Palestrina, Allegri, Josquin des Prez, Crecquillon, Cornysh and Victoria. Many are ornate, with harmonies that span several octaves; others are spare and haunting, as one would expect from music made in an era where life was even shorter and more brutish than it is now. Director Peter Phillips made waves and essentially changed the way choral music was recorded by combining the best sections from multiple takes, just as rock albums are made: in twenty years, he’d see his radical innovation adopted by pretty much everyone else in his field. This collection is just out in Fall 2010 and available from Harmonia Mundi.

November 11, 2010 Posted by | classical music, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment