Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Stile Antico at National Public Radio

During their just completed tour of America, English Renaissance vocal ensemble Stile Antico gave a 'Tiny Desk' concert at the offices of National Public Radio in Washington, which was recorded on video. In a completely flat and lifeless acoustic setting, deprived of the architectural space which brings this music to life, the resulting minimal sound nevertheless reveals aspects of compositional structure in a way not often heard in a recording or performance.

Stile Antico have broken new ground in the performance of vocal music of this period, not only in not having a conductor, relying instead on eye contact between the singers for control of dynamics and phrasing, but more importantly in intermingling the members of the various voice groups, so that sopranos, altos, tenors and basses do not stand in separate sections.

We know from numerous contemporary illustrations of singers huddled around a single lectern that the modern practice of choral 'apartheid' in the positioning of the singers simply did not exist in the Renaissance period. This greatly facilitates the blending of the voices which is so vital in the performance of this music, particularly in the modern era of mixed choirs rather than the male voice only choirs of the period.

The 'performance' features William Byrd's Vigilate, The Lord's Prayer by John Sheppard, Byrd's Ecce virgo concipiet, and Tota pulchra es by Hieronymus Praetorius.

(from NPR's report of the visit)

There's nothing particularly funny about most 16th-century choral music, but the young members of the a cappella ensemble Stile Antico cracked themselves up the entire time they sound checked for this Tiny Desk Concert. A distinctive brand of humor bubbled up within this close-knit group — perhaps a side effect of the five-hour drive they had just made from North Carolina.

But when the cameras started rolling, they were all business — and it's no wonder they've been called "the jewel of English a cappella singing." You would think the strength of a dozen singers would blow away everyone in our small office space, but Stile Antico's music had the opposite effect. The pure, ethereal sound drew our audience in completely.

For hard-core fans, their selection of pieces was a delectable treat. They sang a sample from their new album Puer Natus Est. Then they took choral acrobatics to the next level with their last tune, ''Tota pulchra es'' by Praetorius, which weaves together 12 independent voices. It's not flashy, but it takes a seriously talented group to pull it off, and the deadly accuracy of the singers' interlocking lines gave me chills.

Stile Antico doesn't have a conductor. They rely on eye contact and the occasional nod of the head. And that's probably the best way to sing this music. There are so many unexpected entrances and subtle changes in all of the voices that a conductor might actually hinder the performance. Stile Antico's rich tapestry of sound unfolded so naturally that I was able to stop listening critically — not easy for a fellow chorister — and become transfixed by its beauty.

For comparison, here is the Tallis Scholars' performance of Byrd's Vigilate from the BBC DVD Playing Elizabeth's Tune, recorded in Winchester Cathedral:-

From the same DVD, Byrd's sublime Tristitia et anxietas:-

Review of Stile Antico's latest release, Puer natus est in the Observer.

Article in Diapason magazine (in French) accompanying the Diapason d'Or award.

Download links (p/w sacrabou)

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