Review: 24 November 2016 Stile Antico

The Touches of Sweet Harmony –

The Musical World of Williams Shakespeare

What makes and ideal concert? The twelve-voice ensemble Stile Antico came very close with a carefully prepared programme on the theme of Shakespeare. Alongside the familiar Shakespeare songs (There was a lover and his lass and Full Fathom Five), we heard motets and madrigals praising the Virgin Queen (a motet by Byrd and a madrigal by Dowland), extolling the wonders of distant lands (Thomas Weelkes’ Thule and The Andalusian Merchant) and responding to the ever-present religious tensions. The possibility that Shakespeare was a Catholic sympathiser was the pretext for one of William Byrd’s most profound Latin double-motets, Tristitia er anxietas. Towards the end, the theme of death became the focus, with Weelkes’ heartfelt When David heard that Absolom was slain and Gibbon’s madrigal The Silver Swan.

Throughout the programme, every word and phrase was lovingly carressed, with faultless intonation and a resonance of tone that belied the dry acoustic of the theatre. To hear this fine ensemble was not merely a joy but a deeply moving experience.

Various members introduced the items.

Despite its focus on music of Shakespeare’s lifetime, at the very core of this programme were two major Shakespeare settings by contemporary composers. Although the only music by living composers in the entire Concert Club season, performances demonstrated just what can be achieved with a contemporary musical language. Huw Watkins’ The Phoenix and the Turtle sets Shakespeare’s long poem strophically with a Brittenesque lightness in the word-setting and a rapid pacing that rewarded close concentration. Nico Muhly’s Gentle Sleep sets a text from Henry IV part I.  A dissonant but ravishingly beautiful sequence formed by a pianissimo ground to sensuous solo enunciations of the text, the secret in this performance being the absolutely pure intonation, perfect ensemble and spectacular breath control. With no conductor, these fine singers demonstrate just how beautiful both new and old music can be when it is so skilfully prepared and lovingly expressed.

Peter Johnson