The latest creative album theme from the celebrated English early music vocal ensemble Stile Antico is In a Strange Land: Elizabethan Composers in Exile. With works by John Dowland, William Byrd, and their contemporaries, it’s a beautiful sequence of music – and a decidedly melancholy affair.
The “exile” here refers to Catholic composers who either physically or symbolically left England as the regime of Queen Elizabeth I enforced adherence to Protestant observance. Dowland and Byrd are the most famous.
Dowland may have been more of a troublemaker by nature than a committed Papist, but the two selections by him have a deeply tragic feel. Velvety, almost spectral textures make the choir’s performance of his 1612 “In this trembling shadow” one of the album’s most sublime moments.
Peter Philips and Richard Dering were both English Catholics who spent much of their careers in the Low Countries. The brief motet by Dering is strikingly rhythmic and dramatic. And parts of Philips’s “Gaude Maria virgo” sound downright cheery in this context. But the theme persists. “Most wise virgin, where are you going, shining gloriously as the morning?” Presumably to celebrate having “destroyed all heresies.”
Byrd’s eight-part motet “Quomodo cantabimus” demonstrates these composers’ urge to set Biblical texts that referenced exile, such as Psalm 137. The austere harmonies of Philippe de Monte’s “Super flumina Babylonis,” to which Byrd was responding, represents music of a more purely Renaissance style addressing the same theme. Byrd’s motet is softer but much more musicologically lively, particularly in Stile Antico’s inspired rendition. It’s no accident that Psalm 137 also serves as the text for one of the loveliest songs from Stephen Schwartz’s 20th-century musical Godspell. There have always been and will always be exiles, internal and external.
The album acknowledges the vitality of modern composition with Huw Watkins’s reedy 2014 setting of Shakespeare’s poem “The Phoenix and the Turtle.” Some believe the poem a shrouded allegory about Catholic martyrs. In any event it dates from the same era as the rest of the music. The choir tempers the aggression of the opening with a gingerly performance, while Watkins’s chorale-like closing section seems to pay especial tribute to his predecessors of four centuries past.
The choral music of the early 17th century remains popular in large part because of its aesthetic beauty. But following along with a translation of the text (as provided in the liner notes) deepens one’s appreciation. That’s especially so with Robert White’s setting of the “Lamentations of Jeremiah.” This 22-minute masterwork closes the album with a kaleidoscopic survey of sorrow, sung in tones ineffably sweet. A brief chorale on each section’s initial Hebrew letter begins each section, cries of woe punctuating the verbal lamentations.
Close your eyes and it’s easy to imagine yourself listening to Stile Antico in the vaulting nave of a vast cathedral. It works even for the modest modernism of the Watkins piece. It’s because of the recording’s smooth balance of clarity and cottony distance. We’re in the room with the singers – but it’s a big (and centuries-old) room.
As always, Stile Antico approaches early music with equal parts fresh energy and harmonious respect. This Harmonia Mundi recording is available beginning 11 January 2019 at Amazon.com and to UK customers via Stile Antico’s website.