Premièring a new touring programme at their home church of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate, early music vocal ensemble Stile Antico treated us to a concert centred around the music of the Hapsburg courts of the late 15th and 16th centuries. Taking a journey through the music of the Burgundian and Flemish courts under the reign of Maximillian I, his grandson Charles V and great-grandson Philip II, we began tonight’s concert with the first installment of the mass setting which interspersed the programme: the Kyrie from the Missa Quam pulchra es by Nicolas Gombert. The purity of tone of the singers in Stile Antico was simply stunning and the wonderfully blended voices took full advantage of all the harmonic tension within the movement. The balance between parts was excellent, with the inner voices clearly articulating the piquant false relations.

Stile Antico © Marco Borggreve
Stile Antico
© Marco Borggreve

Stile Antico works without a conductor and in a variety of different ensembles, and a smaller group of singers was used for the next piece: Josquin des Prez’s Mille regretz. The intonation was slightly weaker here and I thought the final moments could have been more convincing, but the flow throughout was still excellent, as could be heard in Thomas Crecquillon’s Andreas Christi famulus, in which the overlapping running lines were beautifully managed.

The second movement of the mass, the Gloria, utilised the rich tone of the basses, with confident canonic entries and a full, homogenous sound. I felt more could have been made of the “Gaudeamus” sections, and the absence of a conductor was a shortcoming in this movement in particular: although the individual lines were beautifully shaped and musically sung, occasionally the bigger picture was lost and I felt that there could have been more varied characters and vocal colours.

A lovely soprano duet opened Heinrich Isaac’s Virgo prudentissima, followed by the tenor and bass. The entries were crisp and clean and the formation of the group provided some interesting stereophonic antiphonal effects. This overlapping of lines and gradually building tension was again managed well in the Sanctus and Benedictus from the Missa Quam pulchra es, although I felt it was a little on the safe side. The rocking Benedictus had a serene quality that suited the singers well.

Alonso Lobo’s Versa est in luctum is arguably one of the greatest works to survive from the Renaissance period. Requiring extreme control, perfect intonation and nerves of steel, the opening entries were beautifully managed. Well tuned throughout, the suspensions worked well and the harmonic movement was always clear. Here again, I thought more could have been made of the overall emotional shape of the piece, even though every singer was phrasing their line beautifully. This was not the case, however, in Pierre de la Rue’s Absalon, fili mi, where I thought the character of the piece was captured successfully and the progression of harmonic tension was engaging and interesting throughout.

We drew to a close with the final Angus Dei from Gombert’s mass, in which the group finally started to open out into a rich, full sound. The homophonic sections of the Clemens non Papa were equally lush and the triumphal Jubilate Deo of Cristóbal de Morales again showed off Stile Antico’s beautiful purity of tone to its full effect. The overlapping opening lines were increasingly exciting and brought the programme to an end with a flourish.