A full sanctuary at St. Paul Parish in Harvard Square last Saturday witnessed Boston Early Music Festival’s presentation of the a cappella group Stile Antico. The 12 British singers gave 18 responsory motets by the Renaissance master Tomás Luis de Victoria for Holy Week.
The motets set 18 texts that follow the readings during services of Matins and Lauds on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. The texts describe and meditate on the betrayal, trial, crucifixion, and burial of Jesus of Nazareth. These services originally took place in the early mornings of the key days of Holy Week, but by the late middle ages, they were celebrated the previous evening. The dark tale of Jesus’s sacrifice was therefore set amidst the growing shadows of sunset and nightfall, giving the service the Latin name of Tenebrae (darkness). Easter Sunday was the preceding weekend, so the performance was liturgically a week late, but I would love to hear a group bring this kind of exquisite clarity to this music of darkness any time of the year.
Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday have two Tenebrae services apiece, and each service has three readings, which make for six motets for each day and eighteen motets in total. Victoria wrote them to be sung in the midst of a much larger liturgical service, and to give them a sense of narrative continuity, he set all of the motets in d minor. The first and third motets of each set were scored for four voices, and the second motet was set for three voices.
Within these constraints, Victoria created a rich variety of sounds, harmonies, and textures. Some passages are in full four-part counterpoint; in others the top three voices are echoed by the bottom three voices (or vice versa), creating the illusion of a double choir. The disparate voices sometimes merge into rhythmic unison during emphatic moments. Some texts are repeated in subsequent motets, with Victoria using similar musical settings for the echoed texts. And each motet has four distinct sections: a contrapuntal introductory section, a “responsory” text, a versicle which is reduced to three parts, then a repeat of the responsory text. Victoria’s second responsories are all straight repeats of the first ones.
In preparing for this concert, I listened to a number of recordings by esteemed British early music choirs, and began to regret volunteering to review this concert. I feared an unrelenting flood of unrelenting, homogeneous d minor drudgery. So I was astounded when the 12 singers of Stile Antico took the stage, arranged themselves in a hashed pattern, and proceeded to render Victoria’s Tenebrae darkness with a remarkable vocal and textual clarity.
Stile Antico’s technical vocal skills are beyond reproach. They work without a conductor, a chamber ensemble of singers. Throughout the program, the singers kept focused hawk-like gazes on each other, sometimes locking eyes with others in their section to assure synchronization, sometimes watching for a singer in another section so that a tricky bit of counterpoint would line up. And like all great chamber musicians, each singer listened to their partners louder than they sang, matching intonation, diction, and rhythm with exquisite skill. Not every attack was flawless, but small missteps were fixed swiftly, and as often as not the miscues seemed to come because of singers deeply committed to declaiming the text with clarity and passion.
The group also made canny decisions to clarify Victoria’s structure. The versicles were each assigned to three soloists within the group, but different mixes of singers for each motet, lending variety to the sonic texture. Every responsory repeat was handled differently: sometimes faster, sometimes louder, sometimes ending with an exquisite hushed pianissimo. The additional repeats of versicle and responsory were omitted, helping to give the motets a sense of urgency and forward momentum.
Stile Antico further broke up the potential monotony by separating each group of three motets by a separate work. After the first two sets in each half, the sopranos or the tenors presented a plainchant, based on “Lent prose,” which served as a palate cleanser and textual transition from one set to the other. The first half concluded with Victoria’s six-part motet, “O Domine Jesu Christe,” which worships Jesus on the cross, offering a distinct, far more opulent and densely contrapuntal sound world than the Tenebrae Responsories. The second half concluded with a motet by Victoria’s predecessor in Seville, Pedro Guerrero. His “Maria Magdalene” celebrates the women who arrive at Jesus’s tomb the next morning to find the tomb empty and Christ risen. This motet was rendered with a mood-shifting sunniness and with loads of melismatic fireworks.
The upshot was a performance with breathtaking control, precise execution, and astonishing text and structural clarity. I haven’t heard choral singing of this quality in years, and the group earned a roundly enthusiastic, well deserved standing ovation from the St. Paul’s Parish crowd. They returned for an encore, William Byrd’s anthem, “O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth thy Queen.” This too served as a striking contrast to the Victoria works; homophonic, yet punctuated with sonic fireworks, particularly the extended melisma of the final “Amen.”
The Stile Antico singers are in the midst of a multi-month tour, bringing three different programs to three continents (the Byrd is part of a program of music inspired by Queen Elizabeth I that is the second program in their current repertoire). They are traveling to Colombia with a program of masterpieces of Renaissance polyphony, then reprising the Tenebrae Responsories in London and Leuven, Belgium. The Boston Early Music Festival returns on Friday, April 20th at First Church in Cambridge with Jean Rondeau playing J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations on a harpsichord.
James C.S. Liu is a physician by day and a baritone and music enthusiast by night. He lives with his wife and daughters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.