Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Stile Antico - 'Miserere: Pentitential Music by Byrd and his Contemporaries', 26 March 2013

Wigmore Hall

Byrd – Miserere mei
Tallis – Salvator mundi I
Morley – Nolo mortem peccatoris
Byrd – Memento, homo
Tallis – Absterge Domine
Purge me, O Lord
White – Lamentations
Byrd – Emendemus in melius
Tallis – In jejunio et fletu
Byrd – Attend mine humble prayer
Tallis – Miserere nostri
Byrd – Miserere mihi
Sheppard – Haste thee O God
Byrd – Infelix ego

Other commitments have thwarted my hopes on at least a couple of other occasions to hear Stile Antico at the Wigmore Hall. Having heard excellent things about the group, I was not to be disappointed in this concert of music not necessarily written for Holy Week, though some of it certainly was, yet eminently suited to performance at a time of Lenten penitence. Though the Arts and Crafts cupola above the stage is secular in theme – the Soul of Music gazing upwards to the Genius of Harmony – it often seems to me to have something of the sanctuary to it. On this occasion, it almost seemed as if a little of Westminster Cathedral or indeed the chapel at my present college, Royal Holloway, University of London, had come to Wigmore Street, and very welcome that imaginary visitation was too.

As one of the winning, informative spoken introductions mentioned, boundaries between domestic and church music were often blurred during this period. That was not just the case for recusants; conforming congregations would often like to perform music at home, though naturally not every congregant would have the musical ability to sing Byrd and Tallis. At any rate, a nice balance was struck, a balance that varied according to the work, between ‘domestic’ intimacy and a fuller, rich sound heard when all twelve members of Stile Antico sang. The starkest contrast in that respect would be when Byrd’s Attend mine humble prayer, granted just three solo voices, was followed by the full complement of a dozen for Tallis’s Miserere nostri. Variation in forces never, however, precluded continuity in performance; it was accomplished with minimal fuss, unlike some of those concerts in which rearrangement seems almost to take as long as performance itself.

Byrd’s Miserere mei offered pleasingly full, rich sound to open with. Anachronistic though it may be to describe this as ‘Anglican’ music, it has certainly become so, Byrd proving not just a staple but a highpoint of music lists for ‘quires and places where they sing’. It was not long before I almost imagined I could see the candles of Evensong, taken back to my undergraduate days in which the mixed choir of Jesus College, Cambridge, benefited from an organ scholar with particular enthusiasm for Byrd (and equally creditably, a particular lack of enthusiasm for the more meretricious fringes of the nineteenth-century repertory). Tallis followed, with the first Salvator mundi from the 1575 Cantiones sacrae, jointly published by him and Byrd. Tone was plangent without being puritanical. The music was permitted to speak, as it were, ‘for itself’, but not in the occasionally bland fashion that can emerge from groups who treasure purity a little too much and stress the words not quite enough. Dissonances were not exaggerated – a common failing in the opposite direction – but were felt in tandem with the text beseeching the redeeming Saviour of the world for succour. In a sense, they tantalised all the more for that, rather than being presented as faux Gesualdo.

Relative simplicity was offered in Morley’s Nolo mortem peccatoris, but the painful meaning was clear throughout, the Latin burden offering carefully judged contrast of hope with the English verse of ‘painful smart’. As so often, the alto line offered especially piquant suffering – I certainly do not mean that pejoratively! – in Tallis’s Absterge Domine. The request that God remember His good will – ‘bonae voluntatis’ – seemed to receive subtle emphasis, a sign at least of hope. Robert White’s Lamentations received a fuller, more choral rendition, following the four single voices allotted Tallis’s Purge me, O Lord, though clarity remained paramount. An unhurried performance proved attentive in equal measure to music and text. In the face of such an imploring setting, less overtly so than the soon-to-come seconda prattica of Monteverdi and the nascent Baroque, but subtly apparent nonetheless, how could the words ‘Hierusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum’ (‘Jerusalem, turn to the Lord thy God’) not be heeded?

Serenity, again skilfully avoiding the aforementioned snare of blandness, was to be heard in Byrd’s Emendemus in melius. The harmonic spice of Tallis’s In jejunio et fletu was well judged, not least on account of the fine balance struck once again between verbal and musical expression. Three solo voices might be a difficult texture, but it did not sound so, whether in work or performance, in Byrd’s effortlessly negotiated – at least apparently so – Attend mine humble prayer. Tallis’s Miserere nostri was taken with glorious breadth – and yet, to take an apocryphal quotation out of context, it moved. John Sheppard’s Haste thee o God may have been ‘older’, but this piece from the reign of Edward VI, did not necessarily sound so; indeed, its (deceptive) simplicity in some senses at least looked forward as much as back. Byrd’s masterly Infelix ego received a fine performance in conclusion, Janus-faced, harking back to the rich heritage of the votive antiphon and forward-looking in its more ‘modern’, text-focused quality. Above all, it benefited from a keen sense of overarching form, not as something containing, let alone constricting, but as liberating framework for expression. It is difficult not to wish that such a glorious piece of music, every inch the equal of England’s greatest later composers such as Purcell and Birtwistle, might go on forever, but in its ultimate finitude, whatever its undeniable expansiveness, there lies a Lenten message too. For a fitting encore, we returned to Tallis: an exquisitely blended performance of O sacrum convivium.