A night of polyphony from Stile Antico

James JollyFri 15th January 2010

King's Place hosts a superb concert of Renaissance music sung by Stile Antico

Late New Year’s resolution: serious immersion in Polyphonic music pre-1650! The impetus for this resolve was a concert at King’s Place by Stile Antico, a wonderful group of young singers who took last year’s Early Music Award for “Song of Songs” on Harmonia Mundi (highly recommended – and on iTunes and eMusic). Like many people, and with a pretty good music education, not much was taught me about music pre-Monteverdi. And apart from listening to the occasional Tallis Scholars and Hilliard Ensemble disc, I’ve never really explored this huge, wonderful but rather daunting repertoire.

I think the main problem is that because it’s written for unaccompanied voices there isn’t the difference in texture and colour that immediately alerts you to the different sound worlds of, say, Haydn and, from 100 years later, Brahms. There aren’t the obvious ‘syntactical’ or ‘grammatical’ give-aways that – in symphonic or operatic repertoire – immediately say “that’s Russian” or “that’s French” and “I’d say 1850ish” or “late 19th century”. The other barrier, for me at least, is that this music is so old that it’s difficult to establish a context and a sense of how one composer “fits” alongside another.

One way to give the music a sense of chronology and context, it occurred to me, would be to adjust the composers’ dates to a time when the historical background is there as part of one's education and general perception. So, taking some of last night’s composers’ dates, and adding on 300 years, would give you: Byrd (1840-1923), Dufay (1697-1774), Sheppard (1815-1858), Gombert (1795-1860), Josquin (1750-1821) and Schütz (1885-1972). Crazy I know, but it means that Sheppard’s dates would equate with someone like Liszt and Schütz’s with someone like Stravinsky – and in a modern context they’re chalk and cheese. To the untutored ear so much of this old music sounds similar (especially as the words are often drawn from the same biblical sources) but when placed in relative context, I'm certainly encouraged to listen for advances in both harmony and structure, to take the two most obvious elements.

Sitting through Stile Antico’s concert – and though the King’s Place acoustic is a very appealing one – I felt for the singers not having that extra warmth and delay that an ancient cathedral chapter house lends the music (especially at the ends of pieces where the building usually takes over, swilling it around the huge open spaces to often magical effect). But Hall One is such a lovely space – a beautiful blend of light wood (that still smells of wood, deliciously!) and plain blue, subtly lit, that it feels strangely old and new at the same time! It’s perfect for music of the classical period – Haydn opera excerpts last year sounded ideal in the hall. And it’s also got an intimacy that seems to engender a very palpable rapport between audience and performer (and audience and audience given the number of sweets and drinks that were offered strangers during these winter months of tiresome coughs).

The first half of the programme ended with John Sheppard’s 25-minute Media vita, at whose heart sits the Nunc dimittis – a song that always moves me profoundly with its sense of fulfilment and its touching fusion of the just-born and the soon-to-die, and the very cyclical nature of life and death and its constant renewal. It’s a wonderfully concentrated work and the young, sappy voices of Stile Antico, blended with the skill of a great winemaker, got it across it magnificently. Their latest album – launched, as it happens, last night – is a Sheppard collection and I, for one, will be putting it straight into the “In Tray” of polyphonic music that I’m determined to grapple with this year. And I sincerely hope that, come the autumn, someone will be able to play me a piece of medieval polyphony and I’ll be able to say “Hmmm, I’d say late 16th century, probably Flemish…or possibly French”. And somehow, listening to Josquin or Gombert on my iPod strikes me as amazingly cool!

James Jolly

James Jolly is Gramophone's Editor-in-Chief. His blogs explore live and recorded music, as well as downloading and digital delivery.

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