Opera + Classical Music Reviews

A Divine Hope review – Stile Antico provide a soundtrack to Dante’s classic poetic triptych

21 March 2024

A brilliant marriage of music, text and theme at Wigmore Hall, in this perfectly performed selection of Renaissance vocal music for Passiontide.

Stile Antico Dante main

Stile Antico (Photo: Barry Creasy)

Usually, Advent is the penitential season in which thoughts turn to death, judgement, heaven and hell. Stile Antico, though, using an ingenious thematic hook opted, on Thursday, to transfer these sentiments to Passiontide. The hook in question was Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, the ’action’ of which takes place over the Easter period, from the poet’s arrival in hell on Maundy Thursday to his vision of the Virgin Mary in heaven the following Wednesday. The programme – entitled ‘A Divine Hope’, and divided into sections on hell, purgatory and heaven – slickly connected the musical items to the readings of short extracts of Dante’s work.

Stile Antico have always been first-class interpreters of Renaissance vocal polyphonic repertoire, but, over the years, their initially remarkably high standard of production has become even more honed, such that they are (in this reviewer’s view, anyway) simply the best ensemble around to listen to for music of this genre. Their exactingly co-ordinated, balanced and blended sound was present in every item of Thursday’s concert: in the pared down forces of five voices for the Luzzaschi and Merulo madrigals; in the four and five-part items (Lassus’ Beati pauperes or Palestrina’s Salve Regina) sung with two or more to a part; and in Victoria’s polychoral Magnificat sexti toni. All the items were approached with the rigorously applied musical intelligence that this repertoire needs for it not to sound too clinical: an internalised understanding of the role of each voice line in fashioning the texture; an innate feel for the dynamic shape of phrases; an immersive familiarity with the text, and how its meaning can be brought out through volume, speed, attack and timbre.

“In the midway of this our mortal life…” begins (in English translation) the first canto of Commedia, and using Gombert’s Media vita (‘In the midst of life, we are in death’) as a concert opener, not only set the concert’s Lenten tone (‘do not hand us over to a bitter death’) and cleverly paraphrased Dante’s text, but conjured the poet’s ‘gloomy wood’ in its heavy use of false relations, each of which the group allowed to ping without overemphasis.

” …simply the best ensemble around to listen to for music of this genre”

Unsurprisingly, while the threat of hell is ever-present in Christian theology, little of the liturgy dwells on describing it, and sacred music on the theme is rare. The smooth, annealed polyphony of Palestrina’s Peccantem me quotidie introduced us to the sinner’s fear of hellfire (the group giving us a dramatically sudden drop in dynamic on ‘timor mortis’, and washing clean the sin in the gently rolling iterations of ‘salva me’), but it was left to Luzzaschi’s madrigal Quivi sospiri – a setting of Dante’s words from the third canto – to paint a picture of the agonies endured by hell’s denizens. Luzzaschi is often cited as an example of ‘why Gesualdo wasn’t the only Renaissance composer to write outrageous harmonies’, and this madrigal certainly demonstrated the composer’s subversive style. The five voices made the most of Luzzaschi’s harmonic collisions, piling on the discomfort with fluid shifts in tempo and dynamic. The hymn Vexilla regis (‘The royal banners’) is sung throughout Passiontide, and its incorporation into a structured setting by Guerrero that alternates unison and polyphonic statements not only neatly countered “The banners of Hell’s Monarch do come forth” from Dante’s final hell canto, but processed us neatly into purgatory.

Musical settings of penitential liturgical texts are numerous, and it wasn’t a surprise that purgatory occupied the largest section of the concert. Here, Stile Antico presented us with the most variety within the Renaissance style, each item performed with the aforementioned consummate attention to detail; they included: Victoria’s hymnodic Te lucis ante terminum; Palestrina’s glorious demonstration of the art of polyphony in his five-part Salve Regina; Merulo’s declamatory Salvum fac populum, the final ‘Agnus Dei’ from Morales’ Missa ‘Mille regretz’, for which the group summoned a magically quiet, slow intensity that flowered into glory and died again on ‘dona nobis pacem’.

Dante’s arrival into heaven offered even more contrast by way of an anonymous 13th century setting of Venite a laudere, a jolly, busy, unison carol. After Merulo’s less gnarly secular madrigal (also paraphrasing Dante) Vergine Madre figlia del tuo figlio and Lusitano’s Regina Caeli (in which the group gave some enjoyably cheeky pushes to the sway of the duple time Alleluias) we were treated to Victoria’s Magnificat sexti toni, whose verses, full of contrasting timbres, were given expertly judged echo and response across the three four-part choirs.

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