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Church Music for
the Layperson

Church Music for
the Layperson


In its latest collection, Heavenly Harmonies, Stile Antico revives the centuries-old music of William Byrd and Thomas Tallis

It's not often that a disc of Renaissance church music makes it into the Billboard classical charts (amid the usual compilations, crossover titles, and obligatory Andrea Bocelli releases). Still, that is precisely what happened when the English early music ensemble Stile Antico's first recording, Music for Compline, in 2007, surged its way to the top. In Heavenly Harmonies, the group's highly anticipated second album, Stile Antico once again explores the world of Elizabethan sacred music, but this time with an unusual and fascinating twist.

The disc compares and contrasts two very different kinds of music making that were, somewhat uneasily, coexisting during the reign of Elizabeth I. Nine Anglican hymn tunes by Thomas Tallis are paired with several Latin motets by William Byrd -- each one coming after the other on the disc --the former in the spare, simple new style of the Reformed Protestant church, the latter in the more florid, deeply textured "old style" of Roman Catholicism.

William Byrd lived in a dangerous world for a practicing Catholic. Although the observance of Catholicism was not officially outlawed or overtly persecuted during Elizabeth's reign (she was famously quoted saying that she did not wish to "make windows into men's souls"), most Catholics worshipped in secret. Byrd, although he enjoyed a privileged relationship with his monarch, chose texts for his Latin choral works that reflected the precarious position English Catholics found themselves in after the death of Mary Tudor. Feelings of peril, persecution, and self-reprehension are found everywhere in these dramatic, deeply moving works.

Byrd's musical language uses dense, polyphonic choral textures and masterful word painting. For example, in "Vigilate" (track 2) the sound of the cock crowing ("an gallicantu" in the text) is clearly represented by the singers, despite the lack of instrumental forces, and in the joyful "Laudibus in Sanctis" (track 20), the various instruments mentioned in the text (the trumpet, lyre, and organ) are so cleverly depicted by the composer using voices alone that one can almost hear them.

In contrast to the complexity of the Byrd motets, Tallis's simple hymn tunes seem a world apart. The emphasis, both in the performance and in the enlightening liner notes by Matthew O'Donovan, is on Byrd, but I can't help feeling a slight preference for the charming, unpretentious Tallis pieces, most of which are only a minute or so in length. Tallis certainly could write polyphony with the best of them (as his monumental 40-part motet "Spem in Alium" proves beyond a doubt), but the simple harmonies of these hymns also show a master at work.

The programming is thoughtful and elucidating -- each of Tallis's hymns is paired with a Byrd motet that matches it both textually and in mood.

Which leaves us only to critique the performances of Stile Antico, and they are superlative throughout. We've come a long way from the rather heavy-handed performance of Renaissance choral music that was common throughout much of the 20th century, usually by huge church choirs such as that of King's College. Early-music specialists such as the Tallis Scholars revolutionized performance of Renaissance polyphony in the 1970s and '80s, and Stile Antico is definitely of that mold. Each of the Byrd pieces (and each piece of polyphonic music in general) is made up of several "parts" or lines, each line sung simultaneously (although all are singing the same text). These parts are usually broken down by pitch (alto, tenor, bass, etc.). In the past, performers and choral groups assigned many voices to each part. In more recent times (as on this recording), fewer voices are assigned to sing each part, making it much easier for the listener to hear each line being sung. The performers of Stile Antico, which is made up of only 14 soloists, sing these pieces at only two or three voices to a part, allowing for a clear comprehension of the polyphonic vocal lines. All the members of the group are young (most just out of college), and their voices sound it -- fresh, clean, articulate, and radiantly beautiful.

The disc was recorded at All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak in London, and the acoustic is perfectly duplicated in the recording -- a lovely, deep, church acoustic without too much echo, and a great deal of atmosphere. As usual, Harmonia Mundi's presentation is first-rate, including the aforementioned liner notes and full texts and translations. In short, there's absolutely nothing to fault in this stellar release, which can be appreciated on so many different levels. Many will want to bypass the historical aspect of the music and just allow the truly "heavenly" voices of Stile Antico to wash over them like a gentle summer rain, and this is not necessarily a bad thing -- in fact, it just points up how accessible and contemporary this music can be for a 21st-century audience.

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