In a Strange Land: Elizabethan Composers in Exile – John Dowland, William Byrd, Richard Dering, Peter Philips, Philippe de Monte, Huw Watkins, Robert White. – Stile Antico (vocal ensemble) – Harmonia Mundi HMM 902266 – 62:00 [Distr. by PIAS] ****1/2:
The theme behind early music vocal ensemble Stile Antico’s latest album is “Elizabethan composers in exile.” Nine tracks capture some “best hits” (as much as we can describe religious music as “hits”) from composers put into conflict during a rapid change of religious climate. The penultimate track, composed by Huw Watkins, was debuted by Stile Antico and based upon a text from William Shakespeare. The excellent liner notes by bassist Matthew O’Donovan capture the strange culture during and around Elizabeth’s time, when England was being thrust out of Catholicism.
I had the opportunity to hear Stile Antico live a number of years ago and was impressed by their cohesion—they worked very well as an ensemble. The group now has a number of releases on the Harmonia Mundi label. This recording was made in a London church and the recorded sound is nearly ideal. There is a both an immediacy to the sound with close miking but the authentic reverb is also captured, most noticeable when the ensemble sings with its fullest intensity. I could only wish that every recording I have of choir music had equal treatment with this engineering team.
The most familiar piece to me is the opening track by John Dowland, Flow, my tears. While it may be familiar to listeners as an instrumental piece for viols, it is even more brilliant sung by multiple singers. Both imitation and the harmonic “crunches” seem most appropriate in a setting for choir. The second piece by Dowland, In this Trembling Shadow, is perhaps even more arresting. The contrast of Dowland’s musical language with the album’s last track, the Lamentations a 5 by White, is remarkable as an illustration of the diversity of style explored (and tolerated) during this time. The quick changes and frequency of words in Dowland’s piece are absent; White’s earlier work feels like pulled taffy, and while harmonically less adventurous, the effect is no less profound. In both examples I felt Stile Antico did well with utilizing their expressive power through dynamic contrast.
While the ensemble makes a connection with the other composers and Shakespeare’s supposed sympathies for Catholicism, the piece by Watkins is quite different, stylistically, from the rest. It’s not that I dislike this contemporary piece, which lasts just over five-and-a-half minutes, but it does sit oddly within the program. The piece does highlight the versatility and artistry of this ensemble. Stile Antico’s solid intonation, sharp diction, and expressive power is put to great effect.
Three pieces express to me a very optimistic tone, Philips’s Gaude Maria virgo from 1612; Byrd’s Quomodo cantabimus from 1589, and Philips’s Regina cali laetare from 1612. The harmonic language and rhythm of Byrd’s music feels a generation older. The style Philips employs is not too far removed from the newest style alive in Italy. Altogether, I think the album was well-conceived to reveal the diverse treasures of repertoire from this period.
What’s always interesting to me is how this music is enjoyed by modern listeners. Not in Philips’s or Dering’s wildest dreams might they have expected us to be enjoying their music in 2019, nor outside the context for which it was composed. Does this music have a legitimate place outside the church? Or outside the function of devoting one’s self to God? Dowland may be the exception here, his text poetic and personal. I am not attempting to argue that efforts are wasted at reviving this music, or exposing more contemporary listeners to it. But I will say that recording holiday carols might be more lucrative, in terms of album sales (or listens, however the record companies are counting their successes nowadays).
But even if we take away the text, the meaning, and historical context to this music, it is worth our time, I’d argue, for its sheer beauty of sound. I applaud Stile Antico for bringing this album and this canon of music to light. There is a modicum of disappointment I have for recommending this album for its utility as a “sonorous curtain” of sound (to quote Copland), but the reality is it ought to be heard by more of an audience beyond budding music historians, and those interested in English religious conflict.
Beauty comes in a variety of guises.
More information and music samples at the Stile Antico Website.