Treasures of the English Renaissance: Stile Antico, Live from London

That’s not inappropriate, though, given that several of the compositions
presented were almost certainly written for performance in domestic rather
than ecclesiastical contexts, their Latin texts, and in some cases their
controversial sub-texts, rendering them unacceptable for performance within
Anglican services.

The programme (which was not in fact streamed ‘live’ this week) began,
however, with the flamboyant twelve-part counterpoint of one of the last of
the Jacobean polyphonists – ‘O Praise the Lord’ by Thomas Tomkins, a pupil
of William Byrd, organist of Worcester cathedral (1596-1646), and of the
Chapel Royal from 1621. Festive, almost overwhelmingly rich and vigorous,
Tomkins’ anthem swelled joyfully into Sir Christopher Wren’s square-vaulted
church of St Anne and St Agnes, now home to the VOCES8 Foundation. Stile
Antico displayed Tomkins’ invention at its most glorious, calming the
contrapuntal ostentation with the psalm’s consolation, “for his merciful
kindness is ever more and more towards us”, then regaining momentum with
the overlapping assurances, “the truth of the Lord endureth for ever and ever”, and finally expanding majestically through the
final celebratory repetitions, “O praise ye the Lord our God”.

John Sheppard’s five-voice setting of the Lord’s Prayer established a more
subdued mood. Tenor Andrew Griffiths explained that Sheppard is usually
associated with large-scale Catholic music in Latin – and the ensemble
offered one such composition, ‘Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria’, at the end of
their recital – and suggested that in this prayer we hear Sheppard adapting
to the strictures of Edward VI’s Protestant regime. Yet, this is
misleading. While Sheppard’s setting may not introduce ‘elaborate’
melismas, the music is neither entire syllabic nor homophonic, as one might
expect of music written for the English liturgy. Moreover, his ‘Lord’s
Prayer’ closes with text which, it is thought, was not sung in a
liturgical context: ‘For thine is the kingdom and the power; to thee be all
honour and glory for evermore. Always so be it.’

As Alan Thurlow remarked in an article in Musical Times in 1951,
the British Library source which is the only extant record of the complete
music is an instrumental arrangement with no text other than the title,
‘Our Father’, while the earliest known source, the Petre manuscript in the
Essex Record Office in Chelmsford is also textless, excepting the title,
‘Pater noster’. Thurlow speculates that Sheppard’s ‘Lord’s Prayer’ may be
an example of the practice of transcribing a Latin-texted setting for use
with the new English liturgy – just as Tallis’s ‘O sacrum convivium’ was
reworked as the English anthem, ‘I call and crie’ – and he supports this
claim by observing that there was no established pre-Reformation tradition
of composing polyphonic settings of the Pater Noster for the Latin rites;
that the Petre manuscript in Chelmsford is a collection containing almost
exclusively Latin-texted compositions; and, that ‘after the Reformation
many of the Latin-texted works of the Sarum days were preserved by their
adoption into the instrumental repertoire’.

I digress, but given the liturgical contexts and controversies highlighted
by Stile Antico throughout the concert, these matters are not irrelevant.
Indeed, the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ – which is thought to be one of the last works
which Sheppard composed, at the start of Elizabeth I’s reign and shortly
before his death – has a spaciousness and imitative fluidity which seems
more characteristic of Latin settings, and which Stile Antico duly
emphasised. The false relations were sensitively shaped, and the poised
rendition bloomed warmly in the generous acoustic of St Anne and St Agnes.
The final “Always so be it”, though, despite Griffiths’ suggestion that the
unfamiliar phrase is evidence that the ‘ink was still wet’ on the pages of
the new English liturgy, was surely originally an “Amen”?

Having initially positioned themselves in a circular formation, Stile
Antico – reducing their number from twelve to eight – rearranged themselves
into an antiphonal configuration for Orlando Gibbons’ ebullient
double-choir anthem, ‘O clap you hands’. The singers began in lively
fashion but didn’t sustain the rhythmic animation. In a sense, singers need
to think like instrumentalists in this anthem. The vigorous phrases are
tossed back and forth, reiterated energetically, like trumpet fanfares; a
light articulation, especially of the quavers, is required if they are to
fly with festive excitement. While the vocal sound was bright and the
interplay precise, this performance felt a little too deliberate, in the
latter part of the anthem especially. The repeated cry, “O sing praises,
sing praises”, should dance with glee but here it was quite restrained,
while “God is gone up with a merry noise” was serious in tone rather than

There followed music by two ÈmigrÈ Catholics, Peter Philips and Richard
Dering, which Stile Antico included on their 2019 Harmonia Mundi disc, In a Strange Land: Elizabeth composers in exile. The ensemble’s
vocal discipline is well-suited to the smoothness and formality of Philips’
‘Gaude Maria Virgo’ which they sang with growing intensity and lustrous
colour. They conjured the drama of Dering’s ‘Factum Est Silentium’, which
depicts the battle of the Archangel St Michael with the satanic dragon,
singing with madrigalian vividness and a rhythmic flexibility and litheness
that was missing in Gibbons’ anthem.

Stile Antico had resumed their full complement for these two Latin works,
but just five singers presented Thomas Tallis’ penitential motet, ‘In
Ieunio et fletu’, alto Emma Ashby being joined by tenors Andrew Griffiths
and Jonathan Hanley, and basses Nathan Harrison and Will Dawes. The
one-to-a-part texture helped to make the imagery of weeping priests praying
for the people’s salvation direct and intense, and the five singers
exploited the power of Tallis’ harmonic rhetoric. The full ensemble
conveyed the urgency and drama of Byrd’s ‘Vigilate’, the rising lines and
cross-rhythms growing in exuberance and energy, driving with portentous
purposefulness towards the final admonition: “Quod autem dico vobis,
omnibus dico: vigilate.” (And what I say to you, I say to all: Watch.) Will
Dawes began the solo respond of Sheppard’s ‘Gaude, Gaude, Gaude Maria’ with
dignified warmth, and was joined in the plainsong verse, ‘Gabrielem’, by
his fellow basses; the changing groupings and textures of this expansive
setting were expertly and confidently structured into an unified whole.

Sheppard’s glorious vocal rejoicing – one of the masterpieces of the final
years of the Sarum rite in England – was a fittingly generous conclusion to
Stile Antico’s Live from London programme. They moved from
liturgical to secular contexts for their encore, offering a different kind
of prayer in the form of Thomas Campion’s ‘Never Weather Beat’n Sail’, and
emphasising the mellifluous earnestness of the wearied sailor’s plea for
God’s protective embrace.

Chanticleer perform the final concert in this
Live From London
series, on Saturday 3rd October.

Claire Seymour

Treasures of the English Renaissance
: Stile Antico – Helen Ashby/Kate Ashby/Rebecca Hickey (soprano), Emma
Ashby/Cara Curran/Eleanor Harries (alto), Andrew Griffiths/Jonathan
Hanley/Benedict Hymas (tenor), James Arthur/Will Dawes/Nathan Harrison

Thomas Tomkins – ‘O Praise the Lord’, John Sheppard – ‘The Lord’s Prayer’,
Orlando Gibbons – ‘O Clap Your Hands’, Peter Philips – ‘Gaude Maria Virgo’,
Richard Dering – ‘Factum Est Silentium’, Thomas Tallis – ‘In ieiunio et
fletu’, William Byrd – ‘Vigilate’, John Sheppard – ‘Gaude, Gaude, Gaude
Maria’, Thomas Campion – ‘Never Weather Beat’n Sail’

VOCES8 Centre, City of London; Saturday 26th September 2020.

product_title=Treasures of the English Renaissance: Stile Antico, Live from London
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour