Renowned viol consort Fretwork performing with Stile Antico, one of the most exciting early music vocal consorts around today: this promised to be a special occasion, and it certainly did not disappoint. The two ensembles have worked together before, recording a highly successful album of Tudor and Jacobean devotional music back in 2012, but for today’s concert they turned to settings of Shakespeare, alongside music by contemporaries of the bard in a well-designed and varied programme.

Stile Antico © Marco Borggreve
Stile Antico
© Marco Borggreve
Fretwork have been blazing the trail for over 30 years in viol repertoire stretching from English consort music from the 16th century right through to contemporary commissions and collaborations. Stile Antico just celebrated their 10th birthday last year, and they have made a name for themselves for performing without a conductor, but also for the varied repertoire they continue to explore, way beyond the confines of early music.

They opened with a lively performance of Thomas Morley’s madrigal It was a lover and his lasse. Successive verses were performed by three different solo quartets, before all 12 singers joined for the final verse. Interestingly, this gave us a taste of the variety of timbres of the solo voices, which are so skilfully blended when combined.

Music by William Byrd ran through this concert as a central thread, rather successfully stitching the programme together. Following a rich rendition of O Lord, make thy servant, with a smooth blend of voices and viols, concluding in a wonderfully sonorous Amen, we were treated to a beautifully pure performance by tenor Benedict Hymas, accompanied by four viols, of Byrd’s setting of Campion’s final words from prison, Why doe I use my paper, inck and pen? Hymas’ pure tone, blended with the sombre viols was incredibly touching here.

Hot on the heels of the premiere of Huw Watkins’ Cello Concerto at the Proms three days ago, Stile Antico performed here his setting of the Shakespeare poem The Phoenix and the Turtle, written for the group two years ago. This is a highly engaging piece, and Watkins cleverly pits the voice parts against each other, with rapid rhythmic interest contrasted with the narrative line, passed around the singers. Stile Antico’s diction was impeccable (as throughout their performances), and their communication with each other and with the audience brought the text to life with great energy.

Fretwork © Fretwork
Fretwork
© Fretwork
Fretwork gave us several chances to hear their richly warm tones and delicately precise articulation without the singers. In Byrd’s Fantasia a 5, Two parts in one in the fourth above, they pointed the entries of the canon with care, and as the complexity of variation developed, there was a real bounce in their dotted and triple rhythms. They also gave us a joyful rendition of Byrd’s Browning a 5, The leaves be green, which had a real dance feel, with its running passages and rhythmic energy. The players, and notably the singers listening behind with close attention, clearly enjoyed the many spicy false relations. They showed the more mournful, nocturnal timbre of their instruments in Gibbons’ In nomine a 5 No. 1 in D minor.

The voices were pared down to just seven for Tomkins’ Be strong and of a good courage. This was the one piece in the programme where perhaps not all the solo voices were as secure as each other, but this was nevertheless a well-communicated presentation of this subtly simple setting. Robert Ramsey’s Sleep, fleshly birth was a standout highlight, the successive solo entries delicate and controlled, and the doleful shifts in the harmonies, which rival Gesualdo in their unexpected chromaticisms, handled with fervour. Following the passionate climax at“thus with tears”, the echoes shared first by a pair of tenors, and then by other voice parts were striking in their clarity.

The second contemporary work in their programme was written for Stile Antico by American composer Nico Muhly, for their 10th birthday last year. Another Shakespeare setting, this time from Henry IV: Part 2, this strikingly effective piece begins with gentle keening on the word “O”, and this sets up a rocking lullaby, over which Hymas sang the solo tenor line with impressive ease. Muhly uses other brief solo lines, to contrast with the shifting harmonies and rocking rhythms, and an extended reprise of the opening text at the end is given to a bass solo, sung with a rich tone here by Will Dawes.

They ended all together again for a frankly stunning performance of Wilbye’s Draw on, sweet night. Each successive soft entry built slowly to an anguished My life so ill. Then as the music subsided, the arrival at “silence” was tenderly soft, creating a magical conclusion to this impressive performance. As a welcome encore, they returned for a tender and lovingly gentle The Silver Swan (Gibbons).