Entitled “Passion and Resurrection”, this exquisite concert from Stile Antico unfolded as an exploration of music written in response to Holy Week.

Stile Antico © Marco Borggreve
Stile Antico
© Marco Borggreve

One of the group’s most striking characteristics is their decision to work without a conductor, a move which can at times produce chamber music of the highest quality. In this concert the benefits of such an approach were most evident in the intricate imitation of Nicolas Gombert’s Tulerunt Dominum meum. Elsewhere, however, it felt like a conductor would have helped invigorate certain textures – like the opening of Orlando Gibbons’ six-part Hosanna to the Son of David – and enable them to find even more intimate pianissimos like that which they achieved in Thomas Campion’s Never Weather Beaten Sail, which they sang as an encore.

In Lassus’ relatively early In monte Oliveti the bold harmonic shifts and striking passages of homophony were thrillingly captured. Further tenderness came at the close of Gibbons’ I am the Resurrection and the Life with its final, repeated “for ever”. By far the shortest work on the programme, Byrd’s In resurrectione tua, was a masterclass in emotional compression with the sopranos in particular injecting its complex syncopations with a sense of real elation.

It was a joy too to hear music by the lesser-know contemporaries of Gombert, particularly Thomas Crecquillion’s Congratulamini mihi. Whilst not as harmonically experimental as much music of the period the motet’s many elaborate and florid textures – particularly the final “Alleluias” – were impressive. Another masterpiece from the post-Josquin generation, Jean Lhéritier’s Surrexit pastor bonus followed. Here the extraordinary harmonic language – bittersweet false relations and augmented chords – brought out the most expressive singing of the whole evening. A trio of works from Spain allowed the group to explore a more mystical emotional world; Cristóbal de Morales’ O Crux Ave was judged to perfection, as was Maria Magdalene by his pupil Francisco Guerrero, whilst the telling dissonances in Victoria’s O Vos Omnes were highlighted with care and insight.

Two settings of Woefully Arrayed, a graphic meditation on Christ’s suffering on the Cross often attributed to the poet John Skelton, bookended the concert’s first half; the classic setting by William Cornysh being joined by a new version written especially for Stile Antico by John McCabe. It was the new piece, rather than the 16th-century one, which seemed most straight-jacketed by stylistic conventions; its grey harmonies and mannered rhythmic outbursts ineffectual when compared with the range of colours and emotions conveyed by Cornysh’s far more supple musical material. Whilst the work itself left much to be desired the group’s impassioned performance of it displayed a commitment and attention to detail that was most impressive. Hopefully this commission is the first of many. New works by composers from the ensemble’s own generation – the likes of Christian Mason and Ed Finnis – would be particularly exciting.