The British vocal ensemble Stile Antico made an appearance in Cleveland on Friday evening, 11 October, at the Cathedral of St John the Evangelist, as part of their current American tour to perform a brilliant live rendition of their most recent album The Phoenix Rising.

Stile Antico © Marco Borggreve
Stile Antico
© Marco Borggreve

The concert celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Carnegie UK Trust, founded in 1913 to seek “improvement of the well-being of the masses of the people of Great Britain and Ireland by such means as are embraced within the meaning of the word ‘charitable’ and which the Trustees may from time to time select as best fitted from age to age for securing these purposes, remembering that new needs are constantly arising as the masses advance.” As did the contemporary Carnegie Corporation of New York in the US, the Trust built libraries, but in the UK also repaired and installed church organs, and in 1922 funded a monumental project to revive English Renaissance church music by publishing a ten-volume series Tudor Church Music, sheet-music performing editions which are still in common use by choirs around the world. Among the composers whose works were rescued from the ashes of obscurity (hence, the concert and album title) and published in TCM were William Byrd, Thomas Tallis, Orlando Gibbons, Robert White, Thomas Morley, Thomas Weelkes and John Taverner.

Stile Antico’s concert set exactly reproduced the track-list order of The Phoenix Rising album, with the five movements of Byrd’s Mass in Five Parts serving as guideposts, interspersed with shorter works by others. Fine as it is, the recording does not compare to hearing Stile Antico in live performance. The choir consists of twelve young singers who perform a cappella and without conductor. Like all great chamber ensembles, leadership passes from one member to another as musical moments dictate, a constant awareness of the others in the group, and with small nods and glances from one singer to another, voices emerging and receding as one line or another is emphasized. What emerges is a complex web of music, far more subtle than could be achieved with just one conductor managing the proceedings. All of the singers have solo lines from time to time, yet none is a “soloist”. Individual musical personalities are subsumed into the whole of Stile Antico. At several points in the concert one of the men of the choir gave spoken program notes on the music. The commentaries were a model of succinctness: just enough information concerning what we were about to hear, presented with a touch of humor. (His story about the first Tudor Church Music editor R.R. Terry’s falling out with the editorial committee was quite amusing.) He also pointed out the conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism during the Tudor era, and just how daring it was for William Byrd to sign his name to a Latin setting of the Mass, since Catholic religious observances were treasonous and could lead to very dire consequences.

One would be hard pressed to find any fault in these performances, such was the perfection of blend, pitch, phrasing and musical style, especially in the generous acoustic of the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St John in downtown Cleveland. At full tilt, the twelve voices rang out, yet they were never forced, and still capable of the most serene pianissimo. Stile Antico make an impressive case for performing these works with adult mixed voices, as compared to those performed by men and boy choirs from cathedrals and collegiate chapels.

Some of the works are very familiar: Byrd’s Ave verum corpus, and Gibbons’ O clap your hands (here given a more restrained and legato performance than is sometimes heard). Robert White’s exquisite setting of the compline hymn Christe qui lux es et dies alternates chant with polyphony. Stile Antico’s performance was of utmost calm and control, and was for this listener the highlight of the concert – admittedly a hard distinction among such a feast of riches. Thomas Tallis’ In ieiunio et fletu used just five lower voices (alto, two tenors, baritone and bass) The text is one of confession; the music builds to climactic supplication: “parce populo tuo” (“Spare thy people”). The final work on the program was John Taverner’s O splendor gloriae, a compilation of various biblical texts, to music of increasingly complex polyphony, ending in a rapturous final “Amen”. The group offered a short Palestrina motet as an encore, thus ending a concert that is surely going to be considered a high point in the 2013/14 Cleveland season.

*****