The 1500s were a period of sea-changes in Western music: the gradual shift from modality to tonality, the rise of instruments as tools for expression independent from voices, and the dawn of music publication were only some of the events that made this period so dramatic. Composers were also engaged in daring new experiments in secular music, such as the exploration of extreme word-painting in madrigals and the eventual creation of what would come to be known as opera. Given this atmosphere of novelty and transition, the sacred music of the time can, upon first hearing, sound staid and cold, the musical equivalent of luminous yet motionless stained-glass painting.
Yet, as the British vocal ensemble Stile Antico recently demonstrated, there are worlds of expression to be found in this beautifully crafted church music. Their US debut concert, given as part of the BEMF on June 12th in Emmanuel Church, presented many settings by various 16th-century composers of texts taken from the Song of Songs. The title of their program included the term “sensuous polyphony”; and while the words of the biblical text clearly reflect that title, what made this concert so remarkable and enjoyable was that the ensemble demonstrated the sonic sensuousness that is inherent in the music itself.
Anyone who explores recordings and performances of sacred music from the 1500s will soon discover that some vocal ensembles are perfectly content to simply sing the words and the notes, honing a crystalline sound, but allowing the design of the works themselves to be the main device of musical expression. There may be something to be said for that: these works contain compelling melodies, and involve highly complex, varied polyphony and contrapuntal sophistication.
But Stile Antico’s approach to those inherent characteristics was to shine the light of emotive interpretation on them. What emerged was a performance of tapestry-like beauty. Through the use of swelling dynamics and varied articulation, discreet acts of word-painting – far more subdued than what can be heard in the secular music of the time – were brought to the fore. Moreover, the individual personalities of each composer and his approach to the texts were not only magnified, but also made sensually evocative. The tripping counterpoint and dense imitative textures favored by Clemens non Papa became delicious devices, with a somewhat different flavor from the more mild homophony and parallelisms prominent in the pieces by Francisco Guerreo; the darker hues and striking harmonies of Nicolas Gombert and Jean Lhéritier – holdovers from practices of the previous century – were vividly colored; and the seamless cadences that make the music of Giovanni Palestrina and Tomás Luis de Victoria so vast were delivered with a tactile smoothness. Even the subtle differences in textures between these last two composers, whose music can sound so similar to one another’s, were illuminated: Palestrina’s smoothness shone with white light, while Victoria’s displayed a more colorful spectrum.
All the singers in the ensemble seemed to revel in these lush musical gestures. Set up in mixed formation (rather than by section), they sang to each other with as much joy and sensitivity as they did to the audience. As for the audience itself, the sighs and gasps that followed nearly every piece showed that all the listeners were viscerally taken by the performance, as well as the richness of the music itself.
Ed: This is one of 11 full reviews by Boston Musical Intelligencer reviewers of concerts from the 2009 Boston Early Music Festival.