Few Early Music groups have become as integral a part of the performance landscape as Stile Antico. The British chorus’s concerts and recordings have earned plaudits around the world, including Grammy nominations in 2008 and 2010, and its album of Renaissance works by Palestrina, Nicolas Gombert and more entitled Song of Songs reached the top of the Billboard Classical Chart and won the 2009 Gramophone Award for Early Music.
Stile Antico’s newest Harmonia Mundi release finds the group again in the Renaissance period, this time focusing on 16th century music from or related to the Imperial Court of the Hapsburgs, who prove a rich source indeed.
Among the 10 composers represented by these eleven tracks, the best-known may be Josquin Desprez and Thomas Tallis. Early Music aficionados might stop me there: “Thomas Tallis? Wasn’t he English? What has he to do with the Hapsburgs?”
As the liner notes explain, “Philip II is best remembered for nearly making England a Hapsburg nation through his marriage to Mary Tudor.” According to one theory, Tallis’s motet “Loquebantur variis linguis,” included here, “is amongst a small number of pieces intended for performance by the joint forces of the Capilla Flamenca [the court chapel of Emperor Charles V] and Mary’s Chapel Royal.”
That’s just the most striking example of the international nature of this collection, reflecting how long-lasting and wide was the empire of the House of Hapsburg even as its borders ebbed and flowed from the 16th century until the end of World War I.
This disc introduced me to several composers I don’t think I’d heard before, and many of the pieces were written for specific occasions – deaths, declarations, treaties. The explanations in the liner notes can add a dimension to one’s enjoyment of the music, which is beautiful throughout.
As a collection the pieces gives a sense of the rich creativity buzzing through the fraternity of composers in those days. Plainsong (unison melodies) and several forms of rich polyphony alternate in Nicolas Gombert’s “Magnificat primi toni.” Pope Paul III commissioned Cristóbal de Morales’s motet “Jubilate Deo” to commemorate a peace treaty; its celestial second section suggests hope for continued good relations as much as celebration. “Long live Paul! Long live Charles! Long live Francis! Long may they live together, and may they give us peace for ever!”
Bookending the century, Heinrich Isaac composed his stately “Virgo prudentissima” for the 1507 Reichstag that established Maximilian I’s position as Holy Roman Emperor. And Alonso Lobo’s somberly beautiful “Versa est in luctum” was written on the occasion of Phillip II’s death in 1598.
The joy of listening to Stile Antico comes not just from the beauty of the 16-piece choir’s individual and collective voices but also from the dense balance of the parts, which can be as many as eight. Here there’s none of the soprano-dominance that afflicts amateur choruses the world over. The parts are sung, recorded and mixed well, the recorded sound coming across as both natural and precise, without the over-preciousness that sometimes characterizes small choruses; these voices sound like they are coming from human beings, albeit ones with expert vocal ability, and not gossamer angels.
Stile Antico will be on tour in the U.S. in February and March 2015.