Tudor & Jacobean music for private devotion. Stile Antico, Fretwork. Harmonia Mundi HMU 807554.
First, a description of the music. Most of us probably think of Renaissance music as played either by minstrels for the entertainment of the masses or by choirs and such for liturgical services. Apparently, however, there was also a good deal of music for private, domestic devotion, secular religious music for use in the home. The present album offers a selection of fifteen songs from the English Tudor and Jacobean eras (1500's and 1600's), played by the English vocal ensemble Stile Antico, accompanied by the English consort of viols, Fretwork.
Some of the composers may be familiar to you, others not so much. Among the better known names are John Taverner (c. 1490-1545) with "In nomine (Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas)," Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-1585) with "Purge me, O Lord," John Dowland (1562-1626) with "I shame at my unworthiness," William Byrd (c. 1540-1623) with "Why do I use my paper, ink and pen?" and Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) with "See, the Word is incarnate." Lesser-known names (at least to me) include Thomas Tomkins, John Amner, Robert Ramsey, Robert Parsons, Giovanni Croce, and, to a lesser degree, Thomas Campion.
I liked this line from Matthew O'Donovan, who sings bass with the group, from his booklet essay: "In hindsight the shaking of the Church music at the Reformation could be said to represent little more than a historic example of evangelicals bringing 'pop' music into worship." Certainly, we hear the overlap of popular, secular, and ecclesiastical music in these tunes.
The singing is a special joy. While there are only about a dozen singers in Stile Antico, they almost sound like a full choir, their voices blending so well, the harmonies so exacting, the tone and timber so precise, so lilting, lyrical, and soaring. What's more, the five members of Fretwork also contribute to the performances seeming bigger than the sum of the participants, Fretwork's instruments lending subtle but solid support. Most of their work we hear during the introductions to the songs and in the purely instrumental number "In nomine a 4 nos. 1 and 2 by Robert Parsons (c. 1530-1570).
The songs offer a unique glimpse into the evolution of music as we know it. But, more important, the songs are beautiful in and of themselves and perfectly executed by all involved.
Recorded for SACD at Air Studios, Lyndhurst Hall, London, in February, 2011, the sound is as realistic as one could imagine. In the two-channel stereo mode of this hybrid stereo/multichannel disc (which I listened to on a Sony SACD player), the voices sound well defined and well separated, with a wide front-channel spread and ample depth. The viol accompaniment is subtle and well integrated into the sonic field. To make matters even better, the acoustic displays a touch of inherent hall resonance for a warm and natural effect, an effect the multichannel layer would undoubtedly enhance.
To complete the package, we get a well-explained, well-illustrated booklet insert, which also contains the full text and translations of the songs in English, French, and German. The package itself is a Digipak, which I don't care for all that much, but I can forgive this one drawback when the Harmonia Mundi folks have done everything else so well.
About the Author
Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.
Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.
When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.
So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.
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