27 Sep 2020

Treasures of the English Renaissance: Stile Antico, Live from London

Although Stile Antico’s programme article for their Live from London recital introduced their selection from the many treasures of the English Renaissance in the context of the theological debates and upheavals of the Tudor and Elizabethan years, their performance was more evocative of private chamber music than of public liturgy.

That’s not inappropriate, though, given that several of the compositions presented were almost certainly written for performance in domestic rather than ecclesiastical contexts, their Latin texts, and in some cases their controversial sub-texts, rendering them unacceptable for performance within Anglican services.

The programme (which was not in fact streamed ‘live’ this week) began, however, with the flamboyant twelve-part counterpoint of one of the last of the Jacobean polyphonists - ‘O Praise the Lord’ by Thomas Tomkins, a pupil of William Byrd, organist of Worcester cathedral (1596-1646), and of the Chapel Royal from 1621. Festive, almost overwhelmingly rich and vigorous, Tomkins’ anthem swelled joyfully into Sir Christopher Wren’s square-vaulted church of St Anne and St Agnes, now home to the VOCES8 Foundation. Stile Antico displayed Tomkins’ invention at its most glorious, calming the contrapuntal ostentation with the psalm’s consolation, “for his merciful kindness is ever more and more towards us”, then regaining momentum with the overlapping assurances, “the truth of the Lord endureth for ever and ever”, and finally expanding majestically through the final celebratory repetitions, “O praise ye the Lord our God”.

John Sheppard’s five-voice setting of the Lord's Prayer established a more subdued mood. Tenor Andrew Griffiths explained that Sheppard is usually associated with large-scale Catholic music in Latin - and the ensemble offered one such composition, ‘Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria’, at the end of their recital - and suggested that in this prayer we hear Sheppard adapting to the strictures of Edward VI’s Protestant regime. Yet, this is misleading. While Sheppard’s setting may not introduce ‘elaborate’ melismas, the music is neither entire syllabic nor homophonic, as one might expect of music written for the English liturgy. Moreover, his ‘Lord’s Prayer’ closes with text which, it is thought, was not sung in a liturgical context: ‘For thine is the kingdom and the power; to thee be all honour and glory for evermore. Always so be it.’

As Alan Thurlow remarked in an article in Musical Times in 1951, the British Library source which is the only extant record of the complete music is an instrumental arrangement with no text other than the title, ‘Our Father’, while the earliest known source, the Petre manuscript in the Essex Record Office in Chelmsford is also textless, excepting the title, ‘Pater noster’. Thurlow speculates that Sheppard’s ‘Lord’s Prayer’ may be an example of the practice of transcribing a Latin-texted setting for use with the new English liturgy - just as Tallis’s ‘O sacrum convivium’ was reworked as the English anthem, ‘I call and crie’ - and he supports this claim by observing that there was no established pre-Reformation tradition of composing polyphonic settings of the Pater Noster for the Latin rites; that the Petre manuscript in Chelmsford is a collection containing almost exclusively Latin-texted compositions; and, that ‘after the Reformation many of the Latin-texted works of the Sarum days were preserved by their adoption into the instrumental repertoire’.

I digress, but given the liturgical contexts and controversies highlighted by Stile Antico throughout the concert, these matters are not irrelevant. Indeed, the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ - which is thought to be one of the last works which Sheppard composed, at the start of Elizabeth I’s reign and shortly before his death - has a spaciousness and imitative fluidity which seems more characteristic of Latin settings, and which Stile Antico duly emphasised. The false relations were sensitively shaped, and the poised rendition bloomed warmly in the generous acoustic of St Anne and St Agnes. The final “Always so be it”, though, despite Griffiths’ suggestion that the unfamiliar phrase is evidence that the ‘ink was still wet’ on the pages of the new English liturgy, was surely originally an “Amen”?

Having initially positioned themselves in a circular formation, Stile Antico - reducing their number from twelve to eight - rearranged themselves into an antiphonal configuration for Orlando Gibbons’ ebullient double-choir anthem, ‘O clap you hands’. The singers began in lively fashion but didn’t sustain the rhythmic animation. In a sense, singers need to think like instrumentalists in this anthem. The vigorous phrases are tossed back and forth, reiterated energetically, like trumpet fanfares; a light articulation, especially of the quavers, is required if they are to fly with festive excitement. While the vocal sound was bright and the interplay precise, this performance felt a little too deliberate, in the latter part of the anthem especially. The repeated cry, “O sing praises, sing praises”, should dance with glee but here it was quite restrained, while “God is gone up with a merry noise” was serious in tone rather than elated.

There followed music by two √©migr√© Catholics, Peter Philips and Richard Dering, which Stile Antico included on their 2019 Harmonia Mundi disc, In a Strange Land: Elizabeth composers in exile. The ensemble’s vocal discipline is well-suited to the smoothness and formality of Philips’ ‘Gaude Maria Virgo’ which they sang with growing intensity and lustrous colour. They conjured the drama of Dering’s ‘Factum Est Silentium’, which depicts the battle of the Archangel St Michael with the satanic dragon, singing with madrigalian vividness and a rhythmic flexibility and litheness that was missing in Gibbons’ anthem.

Stile Antico had resumed their full complement for these two Latin works, but just five singers presented Thomas Tallis’ penitential motet, ‘In Ieunio et fletu’, alto Emma Ashby being joined by tenors Andrew Griffiths and Jonathan Hanley, and basses Nathan Harrison and Will Dawes. The one-to-a-part texture helped to make the imagery of weeping priests praying for the people’s salvation direct and intense, and the five singers exploited the power of Tallis’ harmonic rhetoric. The full ensemble conveyed the urgency and drama of Byrd’s ‘Vigilate’, the rising lines and cross-rhythms growing in exuberance and energy, driving with portentous purposefulness towards the final admonition: “Quod autem dico vobis, omnibus dico: vigilate.” (And what I say to you, I say to all: Watch.) Will Dawes began the solo respond of Sheppard’s ‘Gaude, Gaude, Gaude Maria’ with dignified warmth, and was joined in the plainsong verse, ‘Gabrielem’, by his fellow basses; the changing groupings and textures of this expansive setting were expertly and confidently structured into an unified whole.

Sheppard’s glorious vocal rejoicing - one of the masterpieces of the final years of the Sarum rite in England - was a fittingly generous conclusion to Stile Antico’s Live from London programme. They moved from liturgical to secular contexts for their encore, offering a different kind of prayer in the form of Thomas Campion’s ‘Never Weather Beat’n Sail’, and emphasising the mellifluous earnestness of the wearied sailor’s plea for God’s protective embrace.

Chanticleer perform the final concert in this Live From London series, on Saturday 3rd October.

Claire Seymour

Treasures of the English Renaissance : Stile Antico - Helen Ashby/Kate Ashby/Rebecca Hickey (soprano), Emma Ashby/Cara Curran/Eleanor Harries (alto), Andrew Griffiths/Jonathan Hanley/Benedict Hymas (tenor), James Arthur/Will Dawes/Nathan Harrison (bass)

Thomas Tomkins - ‘O Praise the Lord’, John Sheppard - ‘The Lord’s Prayer’, Orlando Gibbons - ‘O Clap Your Hands’, Peter Philips - ‘Gaude Maria Virgo’, Richard Dering - ‘Factum Est Silentium’, Thomas Tallis - ‘In ieiunio et fletu’, William Byrd - ‘Vigilate’, John Sheppard - ‘Gaude, Gaude, Gaude Maria’, Thomas Campion - ‘Never Weather Beat’n Sail’

VOCES8 Centre, City of London; Saturday 26th September 2020.