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Ensemble effort near perfection

Stile Antico: Christmas Music from Tudor England, December 5, 2011

The Vancouver Sun

by David Gordon Duke

The British vocal ensemble Stile Antico made an extraordinary Canadian debut Monday with a program of music from Tudor England. At first glance the offering, under the auspices of Early Music Vancouver, seemed uncompromisingly narrow: Latin sacred music for Advent and Christmas from a quintet of 16th-century composers.

But, in this instance, focus was anything but limiting. The singers, who work as a cooperative without a conductor or leader, anchored their program with music by two composers: movements of Thomas Tallis’s Missa Puer natus est were interspersed with shorter works by William Byrd.

The ensemble’s 13 young members share an intense enthusiasm for their artistic mission; though intrinsically steeped in specifically British traditions of vocal music making; they create a new and identifiable sound. Their Latin diction is precise and consistent; sopranos sing with the utmost purity but embrace the sound of female singers, not boys; lower voices add richness and warmth. There is a passion – but little fuss or faddishness. Line is everything. Small-scale dynamic contrast is created through the constant ebb and flow of changing textures. Pianissimos are focused, entirely lacking the pop-derived croon that is increasingly the norm with North American ensembles; fortissimos are glorious but never raw.

Stile Antico’s repertoire included a modicum of plainchant, a snippet of John Taverner for treble voices (memorably sung from the Chan’s choir loft), as well as a work by John Sheppard and Robert White’s eccentric Magnificat.

It was the music of Byrd and Tallis that made the evening so remarkable. Tallis’s highly individual work proved the more florid and showy, Byrd’s the more economical and refined. The addition of just a very few, very well chosen words from the platform provided witty insight into the music and the social and political environment of the composers’ times.

Following a concert so entirely without compromise or pandering, the volcanic reaction from the Chan Centre audience was jarring but well deserved. A single encore, Tomas Luis de Victoria’s O magnum mysterium, the sole example of non-English repertoire offered, ended an evening of near perfection.

Wed Dec 7, 2011