Music for Compline
Spitalfields Festival. Stile Antico
Christ Church, Spitalfields. 5 June 2015
I have followed the fortunes of Stile Antico almost from the start of what is now their 10th year. They continue to impress me with their choice of programmes, their vocal skills and their ability to work together, without the distraction of a conductor. The 13 singers stand in a shallow arc, with the voice types mixed up. The eye contact between them is not only a necessity, but it also brings the audience into their world. It is a formula that obviously works well for them, and for their enthusiastic audiences around the world.
Their Spitalfields concert was based on the music from their first CD, and explored the range of English music composed during the 16th century for the office of Compline, a meditative service sung at dusk. The Catholic setting for most of the pieces was contrasted by a few examples of later Protestant versions based on Compline texts. This is music of the utmost beauty, in many cases combined with extraordinary contrapuntal feats (like Tallis’s tour de force Miserere nostril, which combines three canons), and harmonic twists and turns – the latter often from Tallis but also heard during John Sheppard’s Jesu Salvatore saeculi with the wonderful harmonic scrunch on the word sanguine. Simpler and more direct music came, for example, with Tye’s O Lorde, the maker of al things.
Their concert finished with the earliest, and one of the most glorious pieces, John Taverner’s votive antophon Ave Dei Patris Filia, traditionally sung at the end of the service from a remote location, and giving the composer the chance to share some musical jokes with the singers. The eight sections, seven of which start with the word Ave, feature an extraordinary range of musical elements.
Groups of pieces were introduced by different members of the group, accented their cooperative nature. Their programme notes were excellent, although it would have been helpful to those like me who like to follow the notes during performance, if they had been presented in the same order as the pieces.