On the surface, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death seems like a suitable theme for the early music series “Music Before 1800”. Until we recall that it was only after the 1800s that “bardolatry” really began to animate the ranks of leading composers. Very few contemporaneous song settings of Shakespeare’s lyrics remain today.

Stile Antico © Marco Borggreve
Stile Antico
© Marco Borggreve
In a program titled “The Wonder of Will”, the Bard’s name was invoked mostly as a vehicle to assemble three outstanding period ensembles: the Folger Consort, Arcadia Viols, and Stile Antico. Music was selected from Shakespeare’s Elizabethan contemporaries William Byrd, John Dowland, Thomas Tomkins, and John Wilbye – despite the lack of any direct connection to the playwright. This was still a ravishing performance, with Shakespeare’s own words delivered primarily through the prism of living composers.

To open the concert, Byrd’s six-part anthem O Lord, make thy Servant, showcased Stile Antico’s exquisite handling of counterpoint. The piece unfolded with notes of melancholy, particularly the final, restless “Amen.” However, this was a mere prelude to the anguish that was to come in the later Byrd offering, Exsurge Domine.

In his opening remarks, the tenor Andrew Griffiths noted that the entire program could be viewed through the lens of English Catholicism in the Elizabethan age. Indeed, Byrd’s increasingly strident entreaties to his god clearly – and quite poignantly – express the pain of a persecuted religious minority. Likewise, John Dowland (also a recusant Catholic) shed seven varieties of tears in his Lachrimae, which were composed upon his return to England after an extensive period of travel abroad.

Dowland’s collection of Seaven Teares (“figured in Seaven Passionate Pavans”) were interspersed with a cappella works throughout the program. Although they are quite stirring individually, these delicate instrumental works are rarely performed in their entirety. Perhaps for good reason: as Dowland recounted weeping old and new, sighing and sad, forced, loving, and true, his sentiments grew less distinguishable, despite their accumulating volume. The “Teares” felt even less “divers” when compared with the much greater shape and variety of pendant vocal compositions.

Despite the commingling of Dowland’s tears, it was a pleasure to witness a reunion of the viol family (attended by treble, alto, tenor, and bass). The expert players of the Folger Consort and Arcadia Viols glided throughout each pavan with pristine grace. A particular highlight was the Lachrimae Fantasy, originally composed (and later rescored for this concert) by Will Ayton, with its rising motifs and articulated lute passages. Corpus Christi Church was particularly friendly to the lower registers of these period instruments.

Less is known about Shakespeare’s religious beliefs compared with those of Byrd or Dowland. In a program note, however, Robert Eisenstein of the Folger Consort positioned the poem The Phoenix and the Turtle as possible evidence of the Bard’s covert Catholicism.

Stile Antico embraced this interpretation, along with the poem’s overstuffed, obscure references. Huw Watkins’ careening arrangement, commissioned for the ensemble in 2014, piles images atop one another at a rapid clip, only to descend into a desperation that indeed bears traces of divine inspiration. Arresting word painting appeared with the lines “Leaving no posterity,” “dead birds,” and “Truth and beauty buried be.” The performance was thrilling.

Stile Antico also commissioned Nico Muhly’s Gentle Sleep. Using text from Henry IV, Muhly toyed with intervals as symbols: an open 5th for sleep upended by a “frightened” 2nd and a “stretching” 6th. Chaos and slumber sparred for dominance amid dreamlike, aleatoric passages. The New York première presented Muhly at his best.

While deriving the most pleasure in the program’s newer works, I would be remiss to neglect Stile Antico’s delightful rendition of the Dowland madrigal Say, Love if ever thou didst find. The three-part arrangement sparkled with bright, playful phrasing.

If there was any weak spot in the vocal performances, it was the two solo works. Byrd’s Why do I use my paper, pen and ink, which had been previously recorded by Stile Antico as a tenor solo, was here sung by alto Katie Schofield. Despite fine phrasing, the notes did not seem to sit comfortably within her range. Similarly, the soprano Rebecca Hickey lacked some necessary tonal dimension in Robert Johnson’s madrigal Full Fathom Five, adapted from Ariel’s Song in The Tempest.

There is no doubt that Stile Antico is best heard as a unit. In this capacity, the ensemble is at the top of its game. Fresh faced, highly trained, and undeniably gifted, the 12 singers employed a straight-tone style that bridged 400 years of vocal repertoire with unflagging urgency and imagination. This was a most refreshing installment of New York City’s longest-running early music series.