I have happily been listening to and reviewing Stile Antico since 2010, before they became one of Boston’s (and BEMF’s) perennial superstar vocal ensembles. Rereading my reviews, the similarity of my ecstatic reactions struck me, the long covid hiatus only heightening my appreciation of live vocal music, (something I hope never to take for granted again). Yes, this group retains its sensational qualities.
Based in London, Stile Antico has a devoted Boston fan base who turned out in large numbers for its Boston Early Music Festival appearance on Friday evening. A combination of fascinating programs, consistently rave reviews, and the staunch support of BEMF has boosted Stile Antico appearances into must-see events. (The singers return for BEMF on April 19th, 2024; attendance is mandatory!) Regardless of what repertoire the group chooses to sing its extraordinary sound and expressivity continue to impress, as does the singers’ clever programming.
Stile Antico’s repertoire focuses on the impressively rich legacy of 16th– and 17th-century polyphony. It encompasses not only the music of Palestrina and his Italian, Flemish and Spanish contemporaries, but also the fascinating and diverse English school, from the dazzling complexity of the Eton Choirbook to the masterpieces of Taverner, Sheppard, Tallis and Byrd, and the Elizabethan madrigalists. Of course, much of the listening pleasure derives from the halls themselves. This was the second time I heard this group at Boston’s Emmanuel Church, which offers a very different acoustic experience than Cambridge’s St. Paul’s Church. The 12 voices sounded clear as bells, and their meticulous blend inspired awe regardless numbers in the various permutations. What began as a group of Oxonians and Cantabridgians who got together to sing for fun quickly evolved into a supremely polished, democratic, conductor-less chamber music group with many moving and critically lauded recordings and a packed international touring schedule.
From my earliest days of early music listening, Stile Antico’s soaring sopranos seemed to lift me onto a pillow of heavenly sound. The six women remain in tip-top form. In Emmanuel Church, the six men impressed in many moving and powerfully sung solos. What beautiful voices they had! One quibble is that (the speaking) microphone wasn’t working, and conversational voices from the stage didn’t begin to project nearly enough (this from Row I). What did we miss?
“Breaking the Habit: Music for and by Renaissance women” cleverly introduced various composers once been thought of as Yet-Another-Anonymous who now have attributions with question marks, indicating how much detective work remains to be done in the Land of Early Music. Once the rather/still unknown composers segment closed, the group segued into more native turf and presented striking and often rapturous performances of the Renaissance’s Usual Suspects: John Tavener (ca. 1490-1545), William Byrd (ca. 1540-1623), Thomas Tallis (ca. 1505-1585), and John Sheppard (ca. 1515-1558). An encore, Dialogo and Quodlibet, a recent commission from Joanna Marsh (b. 1970), ended the concert, well, somewhat strangely. And certainly anachronistically.
Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.