STILE ANTICO is a 12-strong vocal consort who have drawn plaudits wherever they go, for their purity of tone and the wide-ranging early and late Renaissance music, from all European traditions, which they have made their own.
It is no surprise that they should be favourites in Warwick, where, under the aegis of Leamington Music, Richard Phillips has established one of the best-organised music series in the country, specialising in early and chamber music, but catering for a wide range of interests in events based at the Leamington Pump Rooms and St Mary’s, Warwick.
As the youthful but musically mature Stile Antico have discovered, the audiences in the packed nave are as intelligently clued up and silently attentive as they are regular and reliable. They look for the best; and, by and large, that is what they get.
The ensemble is essentially unconducted. A head may nod here, or a shoulder twitch there, as one or other acts as guide; but there is no Stephen Layton or Harry Christophers to point the way. I thought a crescendo or a hint of rubato might come unstuck or simply not be there; but I have no such criticism; witness the thrilling diminuendo to “Sicut lilium inter spinas”, amid the serenely sung Ego flos campi by the Imperial Court composer Jakob Clemens non Papa (written for the Marian brotherhood at ’s-Hertogenbosch), superbly phrased and reaching a perfectly studied conclusion here; or the beautiful aggregation of sound rounding off the first part of Byrd’s Laetentur coeli.
There were several rarities: the surprisingly full-sounding four-part harmonies of Hortus conclusus by the Andalusian Rodrigo de Ceballos; or Veni, dilecte mi by Sebastián de Vivanco — one of several evocative settings here from the Song of Songs (too loud here, surely, for the delicacy of the text).
By contrast, the choir specialises, much of the time, in a restraint that seeks to allow the music to speak for itself. Palestrina’s Exultate Deo — full of character, excitement, and lush colours — showed just what this group can achieve when it really lets go. But Nicolas Gombert’s Magnificat at the opening seemed too demure, almost colourless; Victoria’s O magnum mysterium — his most fabulous showpiece — was pallid.
But one should not cavil. The plum in this generally fine concert was the choir’s three-year-old commission (for the Three Choirs) from John McCabe, “Woefully array’d” – a treatment, elaboration of, or response to an evocation of the crucifixion by William Cornyshe, Henry VIII’s Master of the Children (Choristers) of the Chapel Royal in 1509-23, who incidentally supervised the music for Henry’s French summit at the Field of the Cloth of Gold.
McCabe (b. 1939) is a master composer in every sphere. A superbly graphic treatment of the anonymous medieval text, which calls to mind Arthur Bliss’s fine choral settings (notably the late Shield of Faith), “Woefully array’d” spans the mysterious, the madrigalian, the contrite, and the plain gorgeous. McCabe’s contrapuntal and keyboard mastery, painstakingly good judgement, and sensitive ear for detail in even a small-scale anthem should have cathedral organists across the country scurrying to him for new pieces. He could yet prove the Howells of his generation, and of our day.