First heard in Boston at the June 2009 Early Music Festival, the British ensemble Stile Antico returned for a concert at St. Paul Church, Cambridge, on Friday, October 15. Numbering a baker’s dozen and including three sisters and a married couple, this extraordinarily cohesive chamber group sings without a conductor. Standing in a semicircle, they seemed to be singing as much to one another as to the audience, producing beautifully matched tone and intonation in the best English choir tradition. Friday’s program of Swansongs and Memorials by the Renaissance Masters, although centered (with the exception of Nicolas Gombert’s Magnificat) on themes of death and dying, ranged stylistically from a late-fifteenth-century work by Guillaume Dufay to the early Baroque by way of the English Tudor choral repertory. These polyphonic works for varying numbers of voice parts were interspersed with selections of Gregorian chant from the Requiem Mass and elsewhere, performed with equal attention to coherent phrasing and precise intonation.
The program opened with a five-voice motet, Retire my soul, by William Byrd, a Catholic recusant who composed for both the Catholic and the Anglican liturgies. With restrained yet moving eloquence, the repetition of the last two lines — “Write all these down in pale Death’s reckoning tables / Thy days will seem but dreams, thy hopes but fables” — underlined the mournful theme of death closing in. In Dufay’s Ave regina caelorum, the text of the antiphon to the Virgin alternates with the composer’s personal prayer for the repose of his soul. Here the two upper parts floated in ornate and rhythmically intricate duet over the slower-moving tenor and bass, reaching a melodic and emotional high point with the introduction of poignant C-minor harmonies on the word “Miserere.” The centerpiece of the program was certainly the twenty-three-minute-long Lenten antiphon Media vita by John Sheppard, who served in the Chapel Royal under Henry VIII and Mary Tudor. This was pre-Elizabethan sacred polyphony at its most magnificent, with sections for six voice parts topped by the high trebles for which English choirs were famous alternating with verses for fewer voices. From intricate counterpoint to dissonant cadential clashes, Stile Antico carried it all off with aplomb.
The highly varied second half of the program opened with the Magnificat by the prolific Flemish composer Gombert, a series of short motets on the even-numbered verses of the hymn alternating with plainsong verses. Gombert’s thickly-textured four-voice counterpoint with its overlapping phrases and avoidance of cadential articulation contrasted with the transparent texture of Josquin des Prez’s O bone et dulcissime Jesu, also for four voices. Imitative entries, often pairing high against low voices, or soprano and tenor against alto and bass, articulate major sections of the text, an adaptation of an 11th-century meditation. Josquin set the text as a commemoration of his patron, René d’Anjou, King of Sicily.
More than a hundred years later, Heinrich Schütz’s Musikalische Exequien were commissioned for the funeral of a Lutheran noble patron. Part of the funeral oration, the motet text “Herr, wenn ich nur dich habe” (Lord, if I have none other than you) is set for two four-voice ensembles SATB. With just one on a part, the singers were able to project the brief text with its declamatory rhythms more effectively than was possible in the more intricate polyphonic settings with their freely floating lines heard earlier in the program. Our tour of Renaissance soul music was completed with Alfonso Lobo’s setting of a lament from the Book of Job, written in 1598 for the funeral of Philip II of Spain, and Orlande de Lassus’s intensely moving final motet from his set of spiritual madrigals meditating on St. Peter’s denial of Christ.
The enthusiastically cheering audience was rewarded with an encore from the ensemble’s latest CD: Byrd’s Ecce virgo concipiet (Behold, a Virgin shall conceive).