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Reviews

<em>Oriana, Fairest Queen</em>: Stile Antico at Wigmore Hall
20 Mar 2018

Oriana, Fairest Queen: Stile Antico celebrate the life and times of Elizabeth I

Stile Antico’s lunchtime play-list, celebrating the Virgin Queen’s long reign, shuffled between sacred and secular works, from penitential to patriotic, from sensual to celebratory.

Oriana, Fairest Queen: Stilo Antico at Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Stilo Antico

Photo credit: Marcus Borggreve

 

The vocal ensemble was at its best in the items that brought all twelve voices together in a mellifluous but rich-grained blend. The ebbing swells of Byrd’s and Tallis’s polyphonic glories, the plaintive rhetoric of Dowland’s lute conceits, the jubilant majesty of the madrigalian homages of Wilbye and Weelkes: diverse musical worlds and expressive contexts were rendered with equal assurance and accomplishment.

More florid contrapuntal excursions, or episodes where the texture was sparser and the musical arguments flew thick and fast, were not always so persuasive. Such moments were full of vitality but occasionally the intonation of the soprano line did not stay wholly tethered to the bass. And, in the items requiring smaller forces not all the singers seemed equally at home with a more soloistic role, though others relished the opportunity to engage directly with the audience.

The concert might have been as aptly titled ‘Music for Troubled Times’ as ‘Music for A Golden Age’. For, as Catholic recusants such as William Byrd knew well, patronage and propaganda, art and politics, were never far apart. Byrd’s Anglican anthem, ‘O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth our Queen’, was probably written when Byrd was the organist at Lincoln Cathedral and it’s easy to imagine that its rich counterpoint embodies the hopefulness of the young composer. The vocal entries were clearly but sensitively marked, and there was a lovely expansiveness through the second line of appeal, ‘Give her her heart’s desire and deny not the request of her lips’, the cadence piquantly pointed by chromatic inner voices. The warm, glowing ‘Amen’ perhaps the conveyed the confident, grateful and affectionate sentiments of a composer in a prominent but precarious position, towards his monarch, patron and protector.

The cessation of Catholic services in 1549 and 1559 made the Latin motet, in the words of Joseph Kerman, a ‘major art-form under peremptory death sentence’. But, while extinction might have seemed the likely prospect for the motet following the Act of Uniformity, or Elizabethan Settlement, which marked the accession of Queen Elizabeth, the continued strong influence exerted by the music of the Continent and the artistic sang-froid of English composers in response to successive religious revolutions - Elizabeth I was the fourth monarch to rule England in Thomas Tallis’s lifetime - ensured that Latin motets, often setting non-liturgical texts or performed in private homes, continued to be composed. Indeed, Kerman suggests, ‘one might argue the proposition that the Latin motet remained the richest form of English music until as late as 1590’. [1]

Certainly, ‘Attollite portas’ by Byrd (who was just sixteen years-old when Elizabeth ascended to the throne) and Tallis’s ‘Absterge Domine’ provide evidence of the richness Kerman describes. Byrd’s motet had both breadth and brightness - I’d have liked even more soprano lustre - but the rhythmic and textural freedom proved a challenge at times. Stile Antico seemed to find Tallis’s piling penitential entries at the start of ‘Absterge Domine’ more natural ground for their timbral coherence and they built compelling energy through the text’s driving expression of devotion - ‘nam tu es Deus meus, tibi soli fidit anima mea’ (for thou art my God, my soul hath faith in thee alone) - enjoying, too, the false relations and chromatic nuances which perhaps betray the motet’s origin in an instrumental fantasia.

Musicologists have oft commented on the mutually beneficial interchange between Tallis, Byrd and Alfonso Ferrabosco the Elder, the latter having risen to a high level in the musical court of Elizabeth. (It has also been suggested that he was the queen’s spy: when imprisoned in Italy, accused of murder, treason and practising Catholicism, it was the intercession of Catherine de’ Medici and Elizabeth I that secured his release.) Ferrabosco’s psalm-settings ‘Exaudi Deus orationem meam’ (SATTBB) and ‘Ad Dominum cum tribularer’ (SSTTB) - sung here by six and twelve singers respectively - shared melodic breadth and linear fluency with the preceding Byrd anthem and motet. A pleading urgency marked the opening of the former, while ‘Ad Dominum’ was invigored by strong forward momentum which underpinned textual intensity.

Secular chansons and villanelles from the Continent provided variety of mood, texture and language. The threads tying Orlande de Lassus’s ‘Madonna mia, pietà’, Adrian Willaert’s ‘Vecchie letrose non valete niente’ and ‘Doulce memoire en plaisir consommée’ by Pierre Sandrin (or Regnault) to the Elizabethan court may be tenuous - the programme note suggested that the Winchester Partbooks in which the three songs are found may have been a gift from to Elizabeth from Erik XIV of Sweden, one of the Queen’s many suitors in marriage [2] , though the works themselves exist in sources dating from 1555, 1545 and 1537 respectively - but this made them no less musically appealing. The four-voice texture of ‘Madonna mia’ freshened the palette after the denser English motets and the text was vividly interpreted - the homophonic pronouncement, ‘Vostra altiera beltà, sola infinita’ (Your lofty beauty, unique and boundless’), had a lovely intensity - though the intonation was not consistently secure. The spiteful vulgarity of ‘Vecchie letrose’ - which castigates ‘spiteful old hags’ who are ‘murderous and mad!’ - was delivered with light-hearted directness by two tenors and two basses, whose springy syncopations had delightfully parodic grace. The simple melancholy of Sandrin’s plaint for lost love was beautifully evoked but the quartet were less successful in capturing the Gallic tint of the text.

The twelve singers came together again for John Dowland’s ‘Now, O now I needs must part’, which unfolded a little too languorously for this listener (the cadential rhythmic suspensions did not have quite enough insistent, tugging impact) but which was beautifully hushed in tone. I liked the injection of power in the second stanza, thus complementing the dialectical text which first impresses the impossibility of recapturing lost joy now that love has been divided, but then asserts that, in fact, affection is not destroyed by absence and will survive until Death itself intervenes. Baritone Will Dawes assumed the melodic line in the final stanza, his delicate decorations both vivid and tasteful, and his tone tenderly beautiful. ‘Can she excuse my wrongs’ was sung by a vocal quartet and was compellingly rhetorical, the individual voices freely exploring the syncopated gestures, held together by a strongly rooted bass line.

Not surprisingly, two madrigals from The Triumphs of Oriana - the collection of 25 works by 23 composers which Thomas Morley published in 1601 - concluded the programme, with the ensemble uniting once more for John Wilbye’s ‘The Lady Oriana’ and Thomas Weelkes’ ‘As Vesta was from Latmos hill descending’. These was a true sense of scale and majesty as Stile Antico relished Wilbye’s repetitions and sequences, while Weelkes’s unapologetic word-painting - ‘descending’, ‘ascending’ and ‘running’ phrases fulfilling their descriptors, and the departure of the shepherds’ swain, ‘First two by two, then three by three’, being texturally represented - was obviously enjoyed.

The twelve singers were at ease in each other’s musical company and warmly engaged in their collective music-making. The presentation and choreography of the concert was professional and slick, though the note-pitching at the start of each item seemed overly fussy … perhaps the group were distracted by the atypical interruption of the prefatory commentary of the BBC radio presenter which necessitated repeated short delays in between the musical numbers.

This was a varied and uplifting concert: just what was needed to rebuff the unseasonal chill of the tenacious ‘Beast from the East’ which has revisited London in recent days. Wigmore Hall was bursting to the seams and the programme offered something to suit every predilection. We were offered an encore, too - ‘Gaudete in Domino’ by Giaches de Wert - which demonstrated the composer (1535-96) to be a master of the Franco-Flemish school, though I’m at a loss as to what a composer who spent most of his active career in service to the Gonzaga dukes in Mantua has to do with the Virgin Queen.

I’d have preferred to leave Wigmore Hall with my ears ringing with Weelkes’ dazzling contrapuntal conclusion, the infinite explorations of ‘Long live fair Oriana!’ seeming to embody both the Queen’s unassailable spirit and the unbounded optimism of the age.

Claire Seymour

Stile Antico

Byrd - ‘O Lord make thy servant Elizabeth’; Tallis - ‘Absterge Domine’; Byrd - ‘Attollite portas’; Lassus - ‘Madonna mia pietà’; Willaert - ‘Vecchie letrose non valete niente’; Sandrin - ‘Doulce memoire en plaisir consommée’; Ferrabosco - ‘Exaudi Deus orationem meam’, ‘Ad Dominum cum tribularer’; Dowland -‘Now, O now I needs must part’, ‘Can she excuse my wrongs’; Wilbye - ‘The Lady Oriana’, Weelkes - ‘As Vesta was from Latmos hill descending’.

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 19th March 2018.



[1] Joseph Kerman, ‘The Elizabethan Motet: A Study of Texts for Music’, Studies in the Renaissance Vol.9 (1962), pp.273-308.

[2] This argument was first proposed by Kristine K. Forney in ‘A Gift of Madrigals and Chansons: The Winchester Part Books and the Courtship of Elizabeth I by Erik XIV of Sweden’, The Journal of Musicology Vol.17, No.1, (Winter, 1999), pp.50-75.

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