Stile Antico’s appearance for BEMF at St. Paul’s in Cambridge Sunday left no one wanting, yet its fascination execution left me pondering: How do they rehearse? How do they program? How do they run auditions? Who produces their editions? How do they balance historical and contemporary conceptions?
To give context: Stile Antico, a young, conductorless early-music ensemble of 12, has established itself as at the top of the chamber vocal group pack before most of its singers have seemingly reached 40. The group has captured audiences with concerts and recordings that are communicative and engaging, shaped with arches and arabesques. It is a real privilege to hear them live. In fact, I would argue it is crucial to hear them live, as opposed to on recordings only (theirs are quite good, but other such ensembles have good recordings as well, some even more interesting: Collegium Vocale Gent, Blue Heron, Cappella Pratensis, Alamire, and the Hilliard Ensemble). Being in the same room as these singers, though, reveals their process, and their pure love for and joy in this repertoire. I knew what we were in for during the opening piece, when one of the tenors flashed a grin across to his partner, closed his eyes, tilted his head back and dug deep into his line, all with a smile.
The music on Sunday came from the ensemble’s latest recording, From the Imperial Court: Music for the House of Hapsburg (2013). If you don’t know much about Renaissance vocal repertoire, know this: the period we are speaking of features some of the greatest music written in the West, setting up musical principles and influences still found today. The composers Morales, Josquin, Crecquillon, Tallis, de la Rue, Gombert, Clemens non Papa, Alonso Lobo, and Heinrich Isaac represented two Spaniards, an Englishman, several Franco-Flemish folks, and a German. This regional swath shows the influence of the enormously powerful Hapsburg Empire, within whose borders there was such striking regional variety. If you believed Renaissance vocal music all sounds the same before this concert, you would have known better afterwards, through the pervasive imitative counterpoint of the Franco-Flemish composers, the rich blossom of the Spaniards, and the pointed sparkle of the German Isaac.
I can hardly emphasize it enough: Stile Antico is a remarkably capable ensemble that should be heard live. Their sound in this concert created a bubbly kinetic energy in the gorgeous sanctuary. Each half opened and closed with triumphant tones, employing the full forces of the ensemble. It has been suggested that Morales’s Jubilate Deo was written to celebrate a peace treaty signed at the time; one imagines joy coupled with boastful pride. Moving into Josquin’s Mille regretz the ensemble reduced to four, three men and a woman. Here their historical awareness shone: they sang this piece not SATB (singing it as written or transposing up) but in the low transposition, which is likely how it would have been performed, as was their choice of one-on-a-part texture. That said, I was not convinced by their French, which sounded more like altered Latin.
One of my favored pieces in the program was Thomas Crecquillon’s Andreas Christi famulus, a motet realized with life and knowledge. Cross-relations (or false relations, as they say) were abundant, utilized for striking musical effect. The gist: in the score there are moments where a voice might need to raise or lower a pitch for reasons of various and sometimes complicated rules of melodic contour (musica ficta, unannotated inflections of pitch; however, in modern editions those inflections are typically notated for ease of performance) while another voice sings its uninflected counterpart. To our modern ears it may sound out of tune, and some ensembles will simply ignore or “correct” those inflected editions, having the voices sing the same note. This, of course, is not the correct approach. The vocal texture takes on a gnarly texture, squeezing intensity and souring the flavor. I have studied the literature on this, but to hear it created organically is quite something. As the concert proceeded and such moments were heard more frequently, I found that typically they were strategically placed, for dramatic effect. And as I stated before, this encounter left me with more questions: Would singers in the Renaissance have done quite the same thing, for drama?
The first half concluded with great warp and weft of Nicolas Gombert’s Magnificat primi toni. Magnificats are performed in an antiphonal style with choral texture and single-voice chants interchanging. A small criticism: this ensemble’s focus on tuning seems to cause constraint at times. The tenor section sang the chants together, three voices, and in an attempt to sound as one voice instead of portraying variety of color, it seemed a little lackluster and relatively stagnant. However, the full texture was something to marvel at. Please, listen to Gombert if you haven’t, it is important music.
The second half presented much of the same musicmaking, with one surprise. Being a big fan of Clemens non Papa, I was holding out the whole concert for his Carole magnus eras, but it was Alonso Lobo’s Versa est in luctum that stole my heart. While I hate to make progressive comparisons, it brought me straight into the drama and suspension of the motets by Bruckner. It was truly glorious, a feat of architectural genius, flowing widely over the soundscape, and most aptly executed by Stile Antico. Again questions: How was this written?
The concert concluded with something pretty neat, possible even a miracle, a piece based on one of the coolest plainchants, Heinrich Isaac’s Virgo prudentissima. Talk about drama: duets spinning around and around, back and forth, pointed entrances with sharp-edged contours. A work of great significance and energy.
The ensemble left one marveling and going forth seeking. The audience was pleased to the point of a standing ovation, which I mention only because this was an early-music concert in a church on a snowy Sunday evening, not the Firebird or Beethoven Nine. Bringing youthful energy to monumental historical music, Stile Antico is a must-hear.