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Sacred music of the English renaissance

[I] "The Phoenix Rising - The Carnegie UK Trust & the revival of Tudor church music"
stile antico
rec: Nov 2012, London, St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb
Harmonia mundi - HMU 807572 (© 2013) (74'34")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

William BYRD (c1540-1623): Ave verum corpus a 4 [2]; Missa 5 vocuma; Orlando GIBBONS (1583-1625): Almighty and everlasting God a 4; O clap your hands together a 8; Thomas MORLEY (1557-1602): Nolo mortem peccatoris a 4; Thomas TALLIS (c1505-1585): In ieiunio et fletu a 5ab [1]; Salvator mundi a 5 (I) [1]; John TAVERNER (c1490-1545): O splendor gloriae a 5a; Robert WHITE (c1538-1574): Christe qui lux es et dies a 4 (IV)ab; Portio mea, Domine a 5

Sources: [1] Thomas Tallis/William Byrd, Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur, 1575; [2] William Byrd, Gradualia ac cantiones sacrae, 1605

Helen Ashby, Kate Ashby, Rebecca Hickey, soprano; Emma Ashby, Eleanor Harries, Katie Schofield, contralto; Jim Clements, Andrew Griffiths, Benedict Hymas, tenor; Will Dawes, Timothy Murphy, Matthew O'Donovan, bass
with: Benjamin Clark, tenora; Graham Bier, bassb

[II] "Where late the sweet birds sang"
Dir: Philip Cave
rec: Jan 23 - 26, 2012, Cambridge, St George's, Chesterton
Linn Records - CKD 417 (© 2012) (75'31")
Liner-notes: E; translations: E
Cover & track-list

William BYRD (c1540-1623): Christe qui lux es et dies a 5; De lamentatione Hieremiae a 5; Domine quis habitabit a 9cdefgh; Quomodo cantabimus a 8cdef; Robert PARSONS (c1535-1572): Ave Maria a 5; Domine quis habitabit a 6; Robert WHITE (c1538-1574): Christe qui lux es et dies a 4 (IV); Lamentationes Jeremiae a 5

Alice Gribbin, Amy Haworth, soprano; Sally Dunkley, Caroline Trevor, mean; Benedict Hymas, Nicholas Pritchard, William Balkwill, Simon Wall, tenor; Robert Evans, Robert Rice, Ben Daviesc, Eamonn Dougand, baritone; William Gaunt, Giles Underwood, Rob Macdonalde, Richard Savagef, Geoff Claphamg, Basil McDonaldh, bass

Stile Antico has developed into one of the major forces as far as the performance of renaissance polyphony is concerned. Its programmes and recordings include a wide range of repertoire, but being British the rich heritage of English polyphony from the late 15th to the early 17th centuries belongs to the core of its repertoire. This disc bears witness to that as it ranges from John Taverner to Orlando Gibbons which demonstrates the stylistic development which took place in about a century. Unlike previous recordings there is no common subject, like a feast of the ecclesiastical year ('Passion and Resurrection', HMU 807555) or a specific kind of texts ('Song of Songs', HMU 807489). The title of this disc explains what the programme is about. It was recorded at the occasion of the centenary of the Carnegie UK Trust which in the 1920s was responsible for the publication of ten volumes of works by the great Tudor composers. This series paved the way for the Phoenix of English polyphony rising from the ashes. At that time the present popularity of this repertoire was not and could not be foreseen. In his liner-notes Matthew O'Donovan rightly points out that there are very few choirs in the ecclesiastical world which don't have a considerable number of pieces from the English renaissance in their repertoire. It has become even part of the repertoire of ensembles which perform outside an ecclesiastical environment. Stile Antico itself is one of the examples.

The result of this connection to the publication of these volumes is that the music on this disc is mostly quite familiar. Those who have a special liking for this repertoire will probably have all the pieces in the programme in their collection in one or more recordings. One could consider this the downside of this project. On the other hand, Stile Antico's performances are very well received, and some may like to have those quite familiar works in a performance by this ensemble.

The accolades for Stile Antico are well deserved as time and again they show to be an outstanding ensemble. At the same time it has to be said that their performances don't offer new approaches to the repertoire they explore. In that respect their interpretations are not fundamentally different from that of other ensembles such as Magnificat. The latter ensemble's disc Where late sweet birds sang focuses on the Latin church music from the Tudor era. Whether the three composers who are represented in the programme continued to write on Latin texts because they stood by their Catholic conviction or only because they had a personal preference for Latin isn't always totally clear. "While Byrd's lifelong commitment to the Catholic faith is well documented, little is known for certain about the religious convictions of the other composers", Sally Dunkley states in her liner-notes to Magnificat's disc.

The 16th century was a time of great political and religious turmoil in England. It certainly wasn't an easy time for composers, whose task it was to write music for liturgical use. The birth of the Church of England resulted in a different liturgy. Some texts became obsolete and new texts in the vernacular were written. The political turbulence - from the Protestant Edward VI to the Catholic Mary Tudor and then to the Protestant Elizabeth I - had an immediate influence on religious and liturgical matters. There seem to be different opinions about the climate in those years. Some see many pieces by Byrd as an expression of sadness about the 'suppression' of the Catholics under Protestant rule, others believe that the climate changed during the second half of the 16th century and that the intolerance towards Catholics grew towards the end of the century. At the same time the Protestant Elizabeth I had a special liking for the music by the Catholic William Byrd who enjoyed a relative freedom.

That said, there can be little doubt that a large part of the Latin church music written in the time that England was ruled by Protestant monarchs was intended for performances in private circles. One just wonders whether that should have any consequences for performance practice, for example in the case of Byrd's masses. In 2009 the Ensemble européen William Byrd recorded sacred music in Latin by Thomas Tallis. The ensembles director, Graham O'Reilly, wrote in his liner-notes: "In this recording, we have been guided by the circumstances of performance that this music may have had in the Elizabethan period. We do not seek to recreate the splendour, ceremony and high solemnity which must have accompanied its first performance in the Chapel Royal or some such august institution. Rather we aim for the intimate atmosphere of a chamber performance, generally with one voice to a part, with the exchange and sharing of musical ideas which polyphony, by its very nature, always seems to demand". I find this approach quite interesting, although the musical result is something one has to get used to. However, it could give a more accurate impression of how much of the Latin repertoire may have been performed.

Stile Antico also includes some pieces on English texts which would become the standard in the early 17th century. Part of the repertoire which is nowadays treated as liturgical music was rather intended for private use, for instance pieces by Weelkes. The same goes for Nolo mortem peccatoris by Thomas Morley, which is taken from a source with secular music. It belongs to a category which, according to Matthew O'Donovan, seems to "bridge the gap between the sacred 'Anthem' and the devotional madrigal". Some sacred works show a clear influence of the madrigal, such as O clap your hands together by Orlando Gibbons. This piece could have been performed with a little more sparkle by Stile Antico. Generally their performances are good, although I would prefer a greater amount of transparency. In hat respect Magnificat does better, although the number of singers of both ensembles is more or less the same. Both use additional voices in some of the pieces on the respective programmes.

To sum up, despite some critical comments these discs can be welcomed as they deliver fine performances of the impressive and large repertoire of English polyphony.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

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