Valentine’s Day at the Wigmore Hall was never going to be an affair of chocolates, flowers and overwrought romanticism, and Stile Antico’s presentation of Renaissance choral settings of texts from The Song of Songs (probably the most erotic book in the Bible) proved to be a huge attraction for jaded intellectuals seeking a more cerebral celebration of the day.
Most of the settings were by composers from Catholic countries; it seems that post-Reformation England’s purse-lipped Protestant ethos discouraged its composers from dabbling in the ambiguous sexuality of the texts, although Robert White’s Tota pulchra es (probably written during the reign of Spanish-leaning – and Catholic – Mary I) provided a sole, delicious, exception, allowing the features of English polyphony (a wide spread between bass and top soprano, and a smattering of false relations in the middle parts) to contrast with the more Latinate works.
Stile Antico were on their usual excellent form, singing intuitively, as always, without a conductor, such that ensemble and blend (with the possible exception of the odd slightly operatic tenor moment) were perfect, whether using their full complement of 12 singers (such as for Tomás Luis de Victoria’s Vadam et circuibo), in a smaller ensemble of 8 lower voices (Nicolas Gombert’s Quam pulchra es) or split into three 4-voice choirs in Hieronymous Praetorius’ Venetian-style polychoral setting of Tota pulchra es.
Stile Antico also mastered the differences in polyphonic style, such that the gentle, staggered entries that depict languor in Clemens non Papa’s Ego flos campi were contrasted with the florid kisses suggested by the busy rhythm of Orlande de Lassus’ Osculetur me.
Interesting too, was the way, through use of tone and timbre, the group pointed up the approaches that each composer made to the biblical passages. Some, such as Rodrigo de Ceballos in Hortus conclusus intended New Testament (sometimes Marian) associations with the Old Testament words, and the group employed a purer tone for these works. Francisco Guerrero reinforces the sacred in Surge propera, amica mea by basing the polyphonic material on a cantus firmus, ‘Veni sponsa Christi’ (Come, bride of Christ), and Stile Antico’s second sopranos rose to the challenge, producing a plainsong line of angelic clarity throughout.
Other composers, though, clearly enjoyed the transgressive opportunities presented by the texts, and set them in a more madrigalic style (the syncopated conversational nature of Sebastián de Vivanco’s Veni, dilecte mi, for example, or Lassus’ employment of running melismas in Veni, dilecte me, suggesting the joyful unfettered laughter of a couple running to an assignation in the vineyard). Even the normally staid Giovanni da Palestrina managed to insert a good deal of carnality into Osculetur me through the use of slowly building long lines. Again, the group caught the inference in these works, approaching them with sensuality, and giving full weight to the harmonic lushness in lines such as ‘Ibi dabo ubera mea’ (‘I will give you my breasts’) or ‘Osculetur me osculo oris sui’ (‘Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth’).
All of the pieces were beautifully performed, but particular highlights were Victoria’s Vadam et circuibo – which presented exquisite almost-close-harmony alternate phrases in high and low voices that eventually melded into brief satisfying homophony and subsequent full polyphony – the pinging excitement of Leonore d’Este’s Sicut lilium inter spinas for four upper voices, and the final thrilling passing of material between three choirs of Praetorius’ Tota pulchra es.
The encore, a quiet and stately rendering of John Dowland’s Now, oh now, I needs must part allowed the audience to catch its breath and return to being respectable Wigmore Hall patrons.