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A Shadowy Treat From Stile Antico

Today’s album was written to be sung by candlelight while each candle is extinguished one by one, until the singers and audience are left in total darkness. Its title make perfect sense: Tenebrae Responsories.

Tenebrae translates literally from the Latin as “shadows.” but commonly means darkness. Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria published this somber choral suite in 1585. It’s a setting of fire-and-brimstone biblical texts about exile, wartime occupation, betrayal, torture, suicide and a few more upbeat things. At the center of the narrative are the Lamentations of Jeremiah, mourning the loss of Jerusalem in a 6th century BC Babylonian invasion. Stile Antico, the world’s most popular Renaissance choir, have released a characteristically insightful, nuanced recording, streaming at Spotify. Divided up into 22 tracks, this new edit of the suite contains the high points of an epic that by any account must have been strenuous (and often utterly redundant) for the singers in mass to perform at the time it was written.

Since taking Europe by storm in the late zeros, Stile Antico have put out a dozen albums, and tour the world constantly. Through it all, their roster has remained pretty stable. They’re singing a different program – English Elizabethan works by Byrd, Tallis, Lassus and innumerable others – tonight, Oct 13 at 8 PM at a familiar and well-suited haunt, the Church of St. Mary the Virgin at 145 W 46th St. to open this season’s Miller Theatre early music program. You can get into this reverb-rich space for $30.

As with most of the group’s albums, the Tenebrae Responsories were recorded in similar sonics at All Hallows’ Church in the north London neighborhood of Gospel Oak. The beginning of the suite is very spare and austere, far more northern European sounding than you would necessarily expect from a Spanish composer. The voices of the group’s women quickly take centerstage, more or less, in parts originally written for boys.

Counterpoint rises toward proto-operatic bluster and then subsides. Stately tempos juxtapose with moments of more atmospheric resonance. Sparse, hypnotically monkish plainchant interludes from the men meet with steady, pulsing passages from the whole choir. The harmonies grow more lush and ambered as the suite continues. It never reaches grand guignol heights, but that’s the point: the cyclical harmonies and absence of dramatic key changes make it as serious as life and death in the wake of the Spanish Inquisition.

And it’s another notch on the collective scorebooks of sopranos Helen Ashby, Kate Ashby and Rebecca Hickey; altos Emma Ashby, Eleanor Harries and Katie Schofield. tenors Ross Buddie, Andrew Griffiths and Thomas Kelly; and basses Will Dawes, Thomas Flint and Matthew O’Donovan. They’re bolstered here by tenor and former group member Benedict Himas and bass Simon Gallear.

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October 13, 2018 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stile Antico Bring Rare, Epic Medieval Grandeur to the Upper West Side

Self-directed British choir Stile Antico might well be the world’s best-loved Renaissance vocal group. They work at a daunting pace, always on tour, always changing their repertoire and always recording it when they do. They have a passion for the obscure, the titanic – if you haven’t heard them sing John Sheppard’s Media Vita, you haven’t lived – as well as the pensive and poignant. Their latest album Divine Theatre: Sacred Motets by Giaches De Wert – is streaming at Spotify. They’re bringing their signature lustre and dynamics to the auditorium at 150 W 83rd St., between Amsterdam and Columbus Ave. on Feb 25 at 8 PM. Tix are available via the Miller Theatre at Columbia; the box office at 116th and Broadway is open M-F, noon-6. You can get in for $30 if you’re willing to settle for a seat that’s not on top of the stage.

This concert promises material from familiar composers including Thomas Tallis, Clemens Non Papa, Orlando Gibbons, Robert Ramsey and others. Why would Stile Antico want to go to bat for De Wert, five hundred years after his heyday? Maybe because his liturgical works are undeservedly obscure, as opposed to his pioneering madrigals. Born near Antwerp, he spent most of his life in Italy working for local tyrants, primarily in Mantua. His main boss interceded with the Vatican to allow a more liberal mass that gave De Wert room to be his innovative self. And none other than Claudio Monteverdi cited him as an influence. Some people would consider this analogy farfetched, but if Monteverdi is proto-Bach,  maybe De Wert is proto-Buxtehude.

The new album opens with waves of vocals, a brief rondo and then a steadily pulsing magic carpet of counterpoint, a series of currents, low, midrange and high – in constant and fascinating flux. Not all of these works have constant six-part harmony, which makes the effect all the more thrilling when it occurs.

Polyphony that would make the most ambitious art-rock band insanely jealous; jauntily insistent echo effects; a steadily creeping gothic sweep; a rather stern processional; unexpected rhythmic and thematic shifts, in keeping with whatever fire-and-brimstone narratives there are to illustrate. and eventually, holiday carol-like cheer all make an appearance. It’s no wonder Monteverdi held this composer in such high regard.

The standouts in choirs are inevitably easiest to pick up on at opposite extremes: resolute bass Will Dawes, spellbinding soprano Helen Ashby and her colleague Rebecca Hickey, with her diamond-cutting presence, are the most instantly recognizable. As much fun as this is to listen to in the dim light of a laptop late at night after a few drinks, nothing beats hearing this group in concert.

February 19, 2017 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Happy Change of Pace from Stile Antico

It’s that time of year again, which means it must be time for a new album from Stile Antico. This time around, the hottest act in Renaissance polyphony give us Passion and Resurrection: Music Inspired By Holy Week. As one would expect, it’s a happier, considerably more optimistic, less gothic collection than their previous efforts. The conductorless British choral ensemble explore a richly resonant mix of short and longer works, nothing remotely as epic as their practically 24-minute version of John Sheppard’s Media Vita from 2010, but there are still fireworks here amidst the otherworldly glimmer and gleam.

The centerpiece, and longest work here, is a recent commission, John McCabe’s Woefully Arrayed. A review of their concert in New York this past April here called it “tense to the breaking point with sustained close harmonies versus rhythmic bursts, the darkest and most stunning moment of the night. Quasi-operatic outrage gave way at the end to organlike atonalities so richly atmospheric and perfectly executed that it seemed for a moment that the church’s mighty organ had actually taken over.” The recorded version needs to be turned up much louder than usual to deliver that effect, but it’s there.

The rest of the album has the balance of rich lows blending with angelic highs that defines this group’s work. There’s a roughly six-centuries older version of Woefully Arrayed – by William Cornysh – that opens it, considerably modern for its time. The closing piece, Tomas Crecquillon’s Congratulamimi Mihi, displays an even greater sophistication for its time with its dizzying polyrhythms. In between, there’s an absolutely gorgeous, dynamically rich version of Thomas Tallis’ iconic, anthemic O Sacrum Convivium, an intense miniature work (if such grand-scale music can be called miniature) by William Byrd and lush, variously paced pieces by a pan-European cast of fifteenth and sixteenth-century composers including Orlando Gibbons, Orlando de Lassus, Cristobal de Morales, Tomas Luis de Victoria, John Taverner, Francisco Guerrero, Jean Lheritier and Tomas Crecquillon. It’s out now from Harmonia Mundi.

November 18, 2012 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stile Antico Sing the Renaissance and Beyond

“This is our whistle-stop tour of Renaissance polyphony,” Stile Antico tenor Andrew Griffiths nonchalantly explained at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin last night, the concluding concert of this season’s Miller Theatre early music series. He was being somewhat disingenuous: the self-directed twelve-piece choir (six men, six women), arguably the hottest ticket in early music for the last couple of years, are dead-serious when it comes to their repertoire, but otherwise not very much at all. Griffiths seems to be the most gregarious out of possibly several cutups in the group: the subtext was that the ensemble was here to span their favorite era with a “treasures of the Renaissance” program of relatively short works, some showstoppers, some more somber, with a deliciously unexpected highlight of far more recent vintage.

That was John McCabe’s Woefully Arranged, a new commission by the choir based on a William Cornysh setting of a Christ-on-the-cross text probably dating from the early 1500s. Tense to the breaking point with sustained close harmonies versus rhythmic bursts, it was the darkest and most stunning moment of the night. Quasi-operatic outrage gave way at the end to organlike atonalities so richly atmospheric and perfectly executed that it seemed for a moment that the church’s mighty organ had actually taken over. This group’s blend of voices is especially well-anchored by basses Will Dawes, Oliver Hunt and James Arthur (subbing for Matthew O’Donovan, who had nonetheless provided very useful historical notes for the program), a launching pad for the sopranos, notably Helen Ashby – one of this era’s most electrifying voices, who always gets top billing with this group – but also Kate Ashby (her sister) and Rebecca Hickey, who share a finely honed but penetrating, crystalline style.

The rest of the program was characteristically insightful and otherworldly, that is, when it wasn’t festive, as it was when the group romped joyously through Palestrina’s brief Exultate Deo. After the serene, celestial translucence of Jacobus Clemens non Papa’s mid-1500s Ego Flos Campi, they brought the energy up with the far more lively, rhythmic Laetentur Coeli of William Byrd, from about fifty years later. They soared from plaintive suspense to the exalted anthemic melodicism of Thomas Tallis’ O Sacrum Convivium, then expertly negotiated the labyrinthine counterpoint of another, rather stern Tallis work, Why Fum’th in Fight. The haunting, gothic side of this music was most potently represented via a Spanish piece, Rodrigo de Ceballos’ Hortus Conclusus (Secret Garden), echoed afterward by a smaller version of the ensemble where four members stepped aside, leaving the rest to do a stately take of Sebastian deVivanco’s Veni, Dilecti Mi. The group closed with Pretorius’ famous Tota Pulchra Est, which they very smartly held back from the unbridled exuberance that church choirs typically imbue this piece with: the subtle precision served them especially well when a series of clever echo effects came around at the end. The crowd wouldn’t let them go without an encore, so they obliged with a matter-of-fact take on the hymn Never Weather-Beaten Sail, a track from their latest album Tune Thy Musicke to Thy Hart: Tudor & Jacobean Music for Private Devotion (out now on Harmonia Mundi).

The Miller Theatre holds these concerts at “Smoky Mary’s” on 46th St. rather than at their usual space uptown since the sonics here make such a good fit for the programming, a mix of choral and chamber concerts featuring international touring acts along with some of the creme de la creme of the Gotham early music scene.

April 22, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Otherworldly Album and Upcoming Concert from Stile Antico

Pioneering Renaissance choir Stile Antico return to New York this coming Saturday, April 21 for an 8 PM concert put on by the Miller Theatre folks at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, 145 W 46th St. As of this writing, tix are still available via the Miller Theatre box office (Broadway and 116th St., and online). In case you might wonder how a choir singing five-hundred-year-old motets could possibly be pioneering, you haven’t heard Stile Antico. The self-directed twelve-voice group (they perform without a conductor, in the style of a string quartet) has made a career out of resurrecting obscure and underrated choral works from the 17th century and before then; their concerts are exhilarating. With their blend of male and female voices, they have a gyroscopic sonic balance, an absolutely necessity considering the dizzying and occasionally herculean demands of the music they sing. On their latest album Tune Thy Musicke to Thy Hart: Tudor & Jacobean Music for Private Devotion (out now on Harmonia Mundi), they’re joined on several tracks by noted early music viol ensemble Fretwork.

Thematically, it’s a bit of a change from the towering (and sometimes harrowing) compositions they’ve mined during the early part of their career (although their Advent and Christmas-themed album Puer Natus Est foreshadowed this turn in a somewhat sunnier direction). The works here tend to be shorter and often less ornate – which can mean quieter, and on a couple of occasions, a showcase for individual group voices as the harmonies literally make their rounds. In the case where the choir isn’t going full steam, the sonics are sometimes fleshed out by gentle yet stately string arrangements, along with a small handful of instrumental preludes. The beauty of the performance transcends any specific religious association (although it’s nice to be able to understand the words without having to dig out that old Latin dictionary). A lineup of well-rembered composers is represented – Thomas Tallis, John Dowland and William Byrd, among others – but as usual, the gems here are the rarest ones. The modernity and outright, awestruck dissonances in John Amner’s A Stranger Here are literally centuries ahead of their time; Robert Ramsey’s How Are the Mighty Fallen works a potently quiet, apprehensive counterpoint that threatens to break out into fullscale angst but never does. And Giovanni Croce’s From Profound Centre of My Heart would make a great pop anthem. Throughout the album, the low/high contrasts are characteristically vivid when they’re not so seamless that it seems like one single polyphonic voice is creating these otherworldly sonics, aided by the rich natural reverb of the church where they were recorded. Historically, much of this repertoire has been neglected in favor of better-known works from the church music canon; this is a richly enjoyable and valuable endeavor from two rightfully acclaimed ensembles.

April 17, 2012 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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