A flying start to the season of Christmas concerts.
December is always a month of singing, as choral music is as essential to the season as mistletoe and wine, and every vocal group puts on its metaphorical Santa hat for a Christmas concert. Stile Antico, true to their USP, opted for an Early music version of a Nine Lessons and Carols service by serving up a delicious helping of choral items from perhaps a broader take on ‘Renaissance’ than is usual (from mediaeval plainsong and 15th century Josquin des Prez to the early 17th century Thomas Ravenscroft) interspersed with read texts by the likes of poets Robert Southwell, George Herbert and John Donne. All this took place at London’s newest cross-cultural performance space, the Marylebone Theatre (part of Rudolf Steiner House at the north end of Baker Street). The venue has been open to theatrical performances since the autumn, but Stile Antico’s gig was the inaugural musical presentation (next year sees an impressive lineup of appearances there by ‘classical’ artists such as Benjamin Appl and Rachel Podger).
A programme consisting of mostly Renaissance polyphony has the potential to be a little samey if not handled well, but Stile Antico had been careful in their choice of items, such that, even within the quite closely defined genre there was plenty of musical variety. Ravenscroft’s foursquare homophonic Remember, O thou man contrasted well with the agile overlapping peals of vocal bells in Peter Philips’s Hodie nobis de caelo, Hieronymus Praetorius’s Magnificat quinti toni (in which the traditional German/macaronic carols ‘Joseph lieber, Joseph mein’ and ‘In dulci jubilo’ are cheekily inserted into the usual polyphony/plainsong alternating verses), and Francisco Guerrero’s busy, bouncy Villancico A un ninño llorando.
“…a delicious helping of choral items from perhaps a broader take on ‘Renaissance’ than is usual…”
As ever, the group’s balance was perfect, whether singing as twelve, ten, eight or five voices; dynamics and expression were expertly controlled (the lightest of touches for the triple time ‘Ave vera virginitas’ passages in Josquin’s Ave Maria, virgo serena, for example, or the percussive imitative repetitions of ‘dispersit’ in the Praetorius Magnificat). The items were well chosen, also, to allow the interplay of choral groups – such as the antiphonal statements and tutti Alleluias in Hans Leo Hassler’s Hodie Christus natus est, or the contrast between the three-part verse and the full five-part introitus in William Byrd’s Rorate Caeli; even the opening plainsong (Corde natus ex parentis) was divided between solo singers, upper voices and lower voices to add a little drama to a unison recitation.
Of all the pieces, though, the most moving were the ‘responsory’ items (where sections of the polyphony are repeated between plainsong verses): Thomas Tallis’s Videte miraculum and John Sheppard’s Verbum caro factum est. In each of these, the complex polyphony builds in intensity, with the odd modal tonalities adding to slow tectonic shifts in the music. Stile Antico were in their element, here, expertly controlling texture and dynamic, and slightly leaning into the occasional false relation to add a tiny pop of piquancy to the inexorable progression of harmony.
The readings, too, were well thought out, and there were one or two unusual items here. Southwell’s The Burning Babe is a regular Christmas text, as is John Donne’s Nativity – in which, to paraphrase the usual introduction, John (Donne) refolds, in an even more unfathomable way, the great mystery of the Incarnation. New to me, though, was Eve’s Apologie in defence of women by Emilia Lanier (1569–1645) – the first Englishwoman to assert herself as a professional poet; it’s a gloriously feminist take on the Temptation in the Garden, with Eve basically saying ‘Adam could have refused; but he didn’t, and was just as guilty – if not more so, being God’s golden boy’. The metrical version of Psalm 85 from The Sidney Psalter (penned by Mary and Philip Sydney in the 1580s was also a novel and charming way of presenting a reading of scripture.