Stile Antico celebrated their tenth anniversary on Friday night with a return to one of their earlier programmes – In Pace: Music for Compline. Compline was the last office of the day in the pre-Reformation monastic world, and the anthems, hymns and antiphons from it are all associated with rest, protection, departure and death (‘the long rest’). Composers of the day – such as John Taverner, Thomas Tallis, John Sheppard and Robert White – rose to the challenge and produced some of the most extraordinary and beautiful music of the period, and when, in post-Reformation England, Compline was replaced by Evensong, the likes of William Byrd, Christopher Tye and William Mundy continued to be inspired to write English settings of the Protestant canticles.
Stile Antico presented the concert with their usual effortless brilliance. They use no conductor, and, in the manner of chamber-music instrumentalists look to each other to ‘feel’ the music. This way of working may feel like showing off, but the performance is all the better for it. Communication with both each other and the audience is at a heightened level, and the music seems to form organically in the space between the twelve singers. The programme allowed a considerable amount of contrast, even within the seemingly restricted world of Renaissance polyphony: plainsong antiphons; more simplistic Protestant anthems such as Tye’s Nunc Dimittis, where the presentation of the text was all important (and ending in the wonderfully archaic ‘Always so be it’ instead of ‘Amen’); Tallis’s In pace in idipsum where the sopranos provided the simple plainsong interpolations to the richly textured polyphony sung by the lower parts; and William Byrd’s rhythmically complex Gradualia antiphon Nunc dimittis, in which the rising volume in the ‘et gloria’ section was perfectly judged.
Perhaps three pieces stood out from all the excellence. Tallis’ Miserere nostri and Byrd’s Miserere mihi were sung without break; this amplified the similarity between the two – both are incredible pieces of minimalism before their time, the canonic structure of both of them creating a busy texture that nonetheless seems not to move – but also allowed comparison of Tallis’s more solid compositional structure against Byrd’s more rapid, lighter, rhythmic texture. The last piece in the concert was John Taverner’s extensive Marian Antiphon Ave Dei Patris filia. It is a monumental work; the text is full-on mediaeval (for example, describing Mary as ‘the Empress of Hell’), and Taverner’s setting of it marks it out as a musically considerably different style to the more nuanced polyphony of later composers – he uses heavily melismatic passages, and alternatim verses sung by just two or three singers, twisting vocal lines around each other to create magnificent effects of contrast.
Stile Antico also presented a lone contemporary work, Nico Muhly’s Gentle Sleep, a setting of words from Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part Two. This was a world-première performance of a Wigmore Hall commissioned piece, and although it felt slightly out of place against all the Renaissance music, its text and style were complementary, and, as it was presented at the end of the first half, it didn’t get in the way. It is a charming piece that sets up a gentle rocking motion through voices moving against each other – sometimes in concord, and sometimes in discord. Out of this arise short snatches of melody, as if from a dream; an appropriate addition to a perfect evening programme.