Stile Antico gives early music a modern freshness
CAMBRIDGE — The presenter (the Boston Early Music Festival) and the program (a tour d’horizon of Renaissance choral music) might have indicated antiquity, but Stile Antico’s Friday concert was, in a way, a reminder that all concerts are new music concerts. Of course, even the oldest piece was new at some point, and performance is always an act of renewal, reintroducing music into the present. But Stile Antico, a 12-member British vocal ensemble, also exemplifies the way that the early-music movement itself is an artifact of the modern world, and how that movement has evolved its own versions of tradition and novelty.
Like modern-music performance practice, early music idealizes a combination of rarified specialization and free-ranging versatility. Stile Antico’s program traversed most of Europe and from the early 1500s to the early 1600s — and beyond. As if to honor the modern provenance of such ancient explorations, the group included a 21st-century piece, John McCabe’s “Woefully arrayed,” premiered by Stile Antico in 2009. The music is a contemporary amalgam, episodic illustrations of a 16th-century meditation on the sufferings of Jesus: harsh dissonance to disjunct lyricism to shimmering tonality. But the work’s demands were those common to early music and the avant-garde: clarity, virtuosity, and precision.
Stile Antico has a surfeit of such qualities. Its sound is an uncanny blend: Vowels were unerringly matched, and more than one interval was tuned with such exactitude that the overtones echoed as loud as the voices. Their meticulous ease illustrates how standard early-music vocal style — the straight-tone focus, the intimate austerity, individual lines arranged into burnished arcs — has become as much a vehicle as an interpretive end.
An opening trio of Flemish-styled works — the learned tableaux of Nicolas Gombert’s long “Magnificat Primi Toni” answered by two settings from the Song of Songs, Clemens non Papa’s organ-like “Ego flos campi” and Orlando Lassus’s bubbling “Veni, dilecti mi” — were all unhurried in tempo and polished smooth. More vigorous articulations sparked William Byrd’s “Vigilate,” which opened a stretch of English works that alternated lively (Thomas Tomkins’s “O praise the Lord” and Orlando Gibbons’s “O clap your hands,” Tudor church music at its most genially bouncy) with lush: Thomas Tallis’s “In pace” and John Sheppard’s setting of “The Lord’s Prayer” — not to mention Tallis’s “O sacrum convivium,” an encore — were like slow-motion billows of velvet.
Palestrina’s “Exultate Deo” and Victoria’s “O magnum mysterium” reprised the concert’s initial deliberate grace, before a closing set, again drawn from the Song of Songs (that most titillating of biblical books was the subject of a 2008 recording by the group) turned geometric and antiphonal. Rodrigo de Ceballos’s “Hortus conclusus” was framed by the double quartet of Sebastián de Vivanco’s “Veni, dilecti mi” and the triple quartet of Hieronymus Praetorius’s “Tota pulchra est,” the texts’ flirtations — be they spiritual or worldly — turned into friendly competitions of scrupulous vocal choreography. Stile Antico’s expressivity is inseparable from its technical achievement, such that attention is always drawn to the music’s ingenious intricacies, its startling richness, its sharp-turn surprises. The latest thing is a venerable phenomenon.