Passion & Resurrection (SACD review)

Music inspired by Holy Week. Stile Antico. Harmonia Mundi HMU 807555.

Stile Antico (“ancient style”) is an early-music vocal ensemble of British singers who formed in 2001 and specialize in music of the Renaissance and early Baroque. They have already recorded half a dozen albums for Harmonia Mundi, and this latest one, Passion & Resurrection, offers a series of thirteen selections based on texts inspired by Holy Week and Easter. It presents a cross-section of composers from England and the European continent that take the listener from Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday through His Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, the Crucifixion on Good Friday, and the resurrection on Easter day.

The composers range in date from the fifteenth to twentieth centuries, some of them famous, some of them not so much. They include William Cornysh (1465-1523), Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-1585), Orlande de Lassus (1532-1594), Cristobal de Morales (c. 1500-1553), Tomas Luis de Victoria (c. 1548-1611), John McCabe (b. 1939), John Taverner (c. 1490-1545), Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599), William Byrd (1540-1623), Jean Lheritier (c. 1480-1551), and Thomas Crecquillon (c. 1505-1557).

The program begins with William Cornysh’s “Woefully Arrayed,” a poem given fresh musical fittings from John McCabe over four centuries (and five tracks on the disc) later. McCabe’s version is a little secular sounding but still reverent. Did I have any favorites among the selections? Certainly, Thomas Tallis’s “O sacrum convivium” encapsulates everything good about this early musical genius. It’s beautiful in its harmonic structure and sung to perfection by Stile Antico.

There is an especially intent devotional quality to Cristobal de Morales’s “O crux, ave” that is hard to resist. And Thomas Crecquillon’s “Congratulamini mihi” is lovely in the extreme, while exuding a feeling of joyfulness, exultation, and inspiration. But to pick favorites among so many engaging tunes is fruitless. Take your pick; they’re all a joy.

The singing is the special pleasure of Stile Antico, though. Although there are only about fifteen persons involved in this particular production, they sound almost like a full choir, their voices blending so well, their harmonies so exacting, their tone and timber so precise, so lilting, lyrical, and soaring. I think I could listen to them sing anything. For the record, they are Helen Ashby, Kate Ashby, Rebecca Hickey, and Alison Hill, sopranos; Emma Ashby, Eleanor Harries, Carris Jones, and Martha McLorinan, altos; Jim Clements, Andrew Griffiths, and Benedict Hymas, tenors; and James Arthur, Will Dawes, Oliver Hunt, and Matthew O’Donovan, basses. You’d swear there were two or three times their number singing.

Recorded in exemplary fashion by Harmonia Mundi at All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London in 2012, the sound is most pleasing on the ear. HM recorded it in stereo and multichannel on this SACD hybrid disc, so depending on your playback equipment, you can listen to it either way; I listened in stereo on an SACD player, and it sounded splendid. There’s a sweet ambient glow around the voices, making them sound very much in a large, mildly reverberant church acoustic. However, the resonance is not so great as to cloud, veil, or diminish the vocals in any way. It simply makes them appear richer and fuller. The ensemble sound entirely natural in this setting, the voices miked at a moderate distance to provide a realistic presentation, the singers sounding warm, smooth, and lifelike, never bright or edgy. Each section of the choir--indeed, each individual member--comes across clearly and distinctly.

The foldout Digibook packaging contains an extensive, forty-five page booklet of notes, pictures, and texts. Moreover, a healthy seventy-one minute running time contributes to the album’s appeal. It’s all very impressive.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

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.

Mission Statement

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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Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa