Notes and Editorial Reviews
This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.
Acquire this exceptionally fine disc and let the radiance of the music and the performances illuminate your Christmas.
PUER NATUS EST
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU 807517 (SACD: 78:09
Text and Translation)
class="ARIAL12bi">Missa Puer natus est. Videte miraculum.
Rorate caeli. Tollite hostias. Ave Maria. Ecce virgo.
This exquisite Advent/Christmas program is laid out in a more varied way than the prosaic headnote would suggest. The Tallis motet on the miraculous conception of the Savior and Taverner’s motet on the wise virgins (an Advent theme) lead off. Byrd’s Propers for the fourth Sunday in Advent are interleaved with the movements of Tallis’s Christmas Mass that gives the disc its title. The program ends with Robert White’s six-voice Magnificat and Sheppard’s Christmas motet. The chant introit that also gives the disc its title is added before the last piece. The beauty of the program comes from the way this English Tudor polyphony fits together so perfectly. Not least a demonstration of the program’s inventiveness is ending it with Sheppard’s seven-voice motet, matching the scoring of the Mass. Sheppard’s brilliant ending, dividing the trebles to produce an eight-voice chord on the last note, makes a perfect conclusion to the whole program.
The last time this Mass was reviewed here (
27:6), the parallel between the boy who was born in Bethlehem and the boy that Queen Mary devoutly (but erroneously) hoped to be bearing at Christmas 1554 was spelled out. Here the notes suggest that it would have been insensitive of Tallis to make the point, given the risk that the queen was not pregnant, that she might bear a girl, or that the child might not survive. Tallis’s Mass and motet are in the third and fourth discs of Alistair Dixon’s complete works of the composer, and the Byrd Propers are in the first disc of Andrew Carwood’s set of that composer, while the Sheppard anthem is in the first disc of Harry Christophers’ set of the composer. Robert White’s Magnificat is in Peter Phillips’s disc devoted to him. All of these surveys of Tudor composers have been lavishly praised, but the present ensemble brings a special sensitivity to the group of works heard in this context. The Sheppard piece is quite a bit broader than the earlier version. Singing two voices to a part, Stile Antico produces a light, floating tone usually associated with single-voice ensembles combined with the warmth of voices blending together. This group makes every new release a delight. Don’t let the duplication of repertoire deter you from hearing this program unfold in all its fascinating beauty.
FANFARE: J. F. Weber
The endless hot summer drags on, and the promise of Advent and Christmas, recalled by the mid-August arrival of this new recording from Stile Antico, is quite compelling. And so is the music, headlined by the magnificent, monumental, and incomplete Missa Puer natus est of Thomas Tallis. The Mass has been recorded before, most notably by The Tallis Scholars and The Sixteen, but apparently a new performing edition was prepared for this current disc by Sally Dunkley (who, with David Wulstan also was responsible for the Tallis Scholars version from 2001). Without copies of the scores in hand--or some very close comparative listening--it's difficult to discern what differences there may be, if any; however, any performance requires some reconstruction of voice parts, so it's possible, even likely, that Stile Antico's Tallis Mass is not identical part-for-part to the others.
Whatever the case regarding the details of the scores, there's no question as to interpretive differences. While The Tallis Scholars and similarly The Sixteen are more measured, more restrained in their use of dynamic changes, Stile Antico is not averse to a little more contrast from one section to another, or to a bit of reveling in a climactic point or concluding cadence--not a bad thing in music whose bolder, more audacious moments are too often underplayed. These aspects of the group's style can be easily appreciated in the Gloria--the shift to a more gentle, prayerful tone at the words "qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis...suscipe deprecationem nostram", and the truly glorious, electrifying explosion of harmonies at the end of the movement.
The Mass certainly is a compositional marvel--although its seven-part voicing ensures relatively dense textures, Tallis manages to weave the melodic fibers with incredible smoothness and grace for very long stretches while maintaining a vibrant harmonic rhythm, such that you sense an easy if powerful flow from beginning to end, which benefits from Stile Antico's strong voices and consistently tight ensemble.
Although the Tallis understandably gets top billing, for me Robert White's Magnificat is the highlight of the program--a masterpiece among a host of other contenders, including the selections by Byrd and of course John Sheppard's dauntingly impressive Verbum caro. My only complaint here is that, depending on the particular voicing, but especially in the Tallis, the recording positions the lowest bass voice just slightly too close, creating an imbalance that can be distracting. I remember 25 years ago when I first heard The Tallis Scholars and thought how lucky we early music fans were to have this group and its recordings and performances to look forward to; with continuing respect for Peter Phillips and his groundbreaking ensemble, I find those same thoughts returning with every new Stile Antico recording. Highly recommended.
--David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com
The start of this disc is arresting. That may sound a strange thing to say, given the nature of the repertoire but I can’t think of a more appropriate word. After the plainsong intonation that begins Tallis’s luminous
Videte miraculum the polyphony starts gently, even delicately. The sheer beauty of the singing is a harbinger of what’s to follow over the next seventy-eight minutes. The piece itself is quite wonderful and so is the performance. In his booklet note Matthew O’Donovan, one of the singers, says that this Tallis motet “effuses an extraordinary sense of rapt adoration, stillness and mystery; to hear it is to stand awestruck before a fine painting of the Virgin and Child.” I cannot but agree yet it requires a performance of the quality of this present one to bring the music truly to life. For a Christian believer this rapt music surely illuminates the Mystery of the Incarnation; and the non-believer can appreciate it just as much as an expression of high art. In this very special performance everything seems just right: the chant sections are fluently delivered while the polyphony is superbly controlled. This is one of the most beautiful accounts of any piece of music that I’ve heard in years.
This disc is my first encounter with the British ensemble Stile Antico, though I have read appreciative comments about them in the press. Like the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra they don’t have a conductor but the precision and unanimity of their singing on this disc would be envied by many a conductor. The core membership of the group consists of twelve singers although I think they were joined by a handful of guests on this occasion because fourteen singers are listed in the booklet. Incidentally, the three altos are all female. The group produces a lovely, even sound and throughout this disc tuning, ensemble and blend seemed impeccable to me. They also sing with great clarity – every line is crystal clear – and the balance between the voices and parts is superb – and this is all the more remarkable when you consider that they don’t have a conductor to regulate the performances as they proceed. If I have a criticism it would be that the music making is a bit
too even. It might be objected that the style is a little too calm and collected but the sheer beauty of sound does tend to disarm criticism.
The programme is built around Tallis’s seven-part Christmas Mass,
Puer natus est. The setting is incomplete and for this recording Stile Antico use a new edition and reconstruction of the score by Sally Dunkley. It’s a marvellous setting. Much of the music is expansive and outgoing, as befits a mass setting for one of the great feasts of the Christian calendar. It was almost certainly composed during the reign of Queen Mary Tudor (1553-1558), that brief period that marked the last years of Catholic monarchy in England, and the music is full of confidence. The Gloria is given a splendidly assured performance by Stile Antico and I particularly admired the way in which each part is perfectly weighted against the others in the expressive ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi’ section. Later, at ‘Quoniam tu solus’, the music gathers momentum for the closing section and it’s noteworthy that these singers increase the excitement without compromising the smooth, splendidly blended textures. The music of the Sanctus is impressive and finely modulated while the serene, prayerful Agnus Dei is brought off quite beautifully.
The sections of the Mass are interwoven with four appropriate pieces from Byrd’s
Gradualia. These are all prayers from the Proper of the Votive Mass for the Virgin Mary during Advent. Their inclusion in this programme is welcome on several counts. In the first place, the music itself is superb: each piece is a marvel of concision and expressiveness. Furthermore, each piece is placed within the Tallis setting at what would be the correct juncture in a liturgical celebration of the Mass. But for me one of the most interesting aspects of the inclusion of these pieces by Byrd is the contrast they afford with the Tallis mass. Some fifty years had passed between the composition of that mass setting and the compilation of the
Gradualia and England had changed irrevocably. A Catholic country had become firmly Protestant and while Tallis had been able to write for a public celebration of the Mass these particular pieces by Byrd were designed for use by recusant Catholic congregations. So, though
Tollite portas is a forthright offering, for the most part we find that a more intimate, less public tone is struck by Byrd. Thus the lovely
Ave Maria is poised and devotional while the exquisite
Ecce virgo concipiet communicates gentle wonder and awe. Stile Antico’s performances of these four little gems are exceptionally fine.
Robert White’s Magnificat is a wide-ranging and substantial piece. It’s an
alternatim setting and in the polyphonic passages White cleverly varies the scoring of each section so that while some are in as many as six parts he often uses much smaller forces. This means that the textures are constantly changing as the piece evolves. The performance by Stile Antico is assured and colourful.
Their recital began with a wonderful piece, superbly performed. Their account of Sheppard’s
Verbum caro ends the programme with comparable distinction. It’s exquisite, full of a sense of calm joy and the performance is absolutely superb.
This is a wonderful disc. I enjoyed it from start to finish and marvelled at the quality of the performances. Other production values are as high as the quality of the music and the singing. The note by Matthew O’Donovan combines erudition and clarity and is very readable. His note is contained in a beautifully produced booklet, which contains some fine illustrations as well as clearly printed texts and translations. Finally, one’s pleasure in the music-making is greatly enhanced by the excellent quality of the recorded sound. I listened to the disc as a conventional CD and thought the recording was most impressive but I’d love to hear it with the even greater definition of SACD.
I said earlier on that this was my first encounter with Stile Antico: I shall make sure it’s not my last. I can only urge you to acquire this exceptionally fine disc and let the radiance of the music and the performances illuminate your Christmas.
-- John Quinn, MusicWeb International Read less
Works on This Recording
Ecce Virgo by William Byrd
Rorate Caeli by William Byrd
Verbum caro factum est by John Sheppard
Written: 16th Century; England
Videte miraculum by Thomas Tallis
Written: 16th Century; England
Audivi vocem de coelo by John Taverner
Written: 16th Century; England
Magnificat by Robert White
Written: 16th Century; England
Featured Sound Samples
Mass à 7 "Puer natus est nobis" (Tallis): Gloria
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