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.
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer
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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer
For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.
For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst
I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.
Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.
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. --John J. Puccio
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