The Phoenix Rising
Stile Antico’s ‘The Phoenix Rising’ is both a celebration and a cautionary tale. It’s a celebration of the breadth and ambition of Tudor church music, encompassing the restrained piety of Byrd’s Ave verum and the muscular sensuality of Robert White’s Portio mea, and a sobering reminder of how easily this repertoire could have been lost to us.
All works on the album are taken from the 10-volume Tudor Church Music, published in the 1920s with funding from the Carnegie UK Trust (who also fund this disc). Although initially derided, the project saw much of the core repertoire of the period made widely available for the first time, introducing not only performers but composers including Britten and Tippett to a choral heritage that would prove so influential.
Because of its unusual origins, ‘The Phoenix Rising’ is less tightly programmed than we’ve come to expect from Stile Antico. Taken as a sampler, however, it makes for good listening, plugging some obvious holes in the group’s recording catalogue (Tallis’s Salvator mundi, Byrd’s Ave verum and most notably his Mass for Five Voices) as well as introducing some less familiar motets. White’s Portio mea, with its astonishing ‘Amen’, and Morley’s madrigalian Nolo mortem peccatoris, lively with false relations, are standouts.
Recordings of John Taverner’s mighty O splendor gloriae are unaccountably few, and Stile Antico’s offers a richness lacking from Alamire’s (Obsidian, 1/12) and a directness lost in the misty haze of The Sixteen’s (Hyperion, 9/93). The Byrd Mass is intelligently paced, with a rhetorical clarity of delivery helping to articulate the dramatic arc of each movement. There’s a forthright quality to the voices of Stile Antico, and especially its sopranos, that suits this English repertoire, balancing beauty with an intensity that reminds us that this is the music of protest and oppression as well as faith.