Stile Antico Presents an Evening with The Habsburgs

Zoe Madonna on March 26, 2015
Stile Antico. Photo credit: Marco Borggreve.

How did you keep a roof over your head and food on the table as a composer in the 16th century? Odds are it was through taking cloying, pandering texts in praise of your powerful employer and turning them into triumphant polyphony.  “Having splendid music at court was a way of asserting status,” tenor Andrew Griffiths explained between selections of the early music vocal ensemble Stile Antico’s March 6 program at the First Congregational Church in Columbus, OH.

The concert concluded the British group’s American tour, which has featured music written for the House of Habsburg. Certainly no Western dynasty had more “status” than the Habsburgs, who ruled parts of Europe for most of the past millennium. (The assertion in Clemens non Papa’s Carole magnus eras that King Charles ruled over “all of Asia and Africa” was pure exaggeration.) In any case, being in the employ of the Habsburgs called for a certain amount of sycophancy.

However, Stile Antico is far from sycophantic. Their delivery is opulent but lean, with organic energy. No matter how prim and proper the texts, there was no trace of cassock-and-ruff, choir-stall stuffiness in the performance.

The group, which will soon celebrate its 10th anniversary, has no conductor. Still, from the first flashing notes of Cristobal de Morales’ Jubilate deo, the 12 singers consistently breathed together, started together, and ended together. Vowels were as tall and solid as the church’s walls, and consonants were audible without chopping up the phrases, as if the singers’ brains were somehow wired to a hidden central hub below the floor.

Nicolas Gombert’s monumental Magnificat, a wordy piece that ended the first half, illustrated the benefits of having women rather than boys singing the treble line. The high voices maintained a pure and never shrill tone even when they soared to the stratospheric ranges. Also, to my particular delight, Stile Antico is the least guilty out of all the early vocal ensembles I’ve heard of burying the alto line. The high voices maintained a pure and never shrill tone even when they soared to the stratospheric ranges.

Josquin des Prez’s Mille regretz, said to be the favorite song of Charles I of Spain, was lovely in its melancholy. Its weighty homophonic passages were phrased well, in no danger of pedal-tone heaviness. Thomas Tallis’ Loquebantuur variis linguis began like ringing bells, each part starting on the same accented and assured two notes before blending into the tapestry. The ensemble did not glide over Tallis’ dissonances, but brought them to the front with the sonic equivalent of a sly wink.

Pierre de la Rue’s Absalon, fili mi showed that even when the lines got chunkily notey, they did so together. Long, plaintive vowels stretched text through time, and a background in Latin wasn’t necessary to understand the piece’s sorrow.

Gombert’s dark little chanson, Mille regretz, flowed more easily to an unsatisfied, unresolved ending. And Alonso Lobo’s Versa est in luctum (“My harp is tuned in mourning”) was slightly unsure about where the tuning of mourning was, but the music’s evocative power cut through to the heart.

Various singers spoke about the music at points in the evening, guiding the audience through the complex and unfamiliar works. The final selection, Heinrich Isaac’s Virgo prudentissima, was explained as a behemoth text expertly woven through florid duets and regal choruses, with all the requisite monarchical references and a music theory joke at the end for the geeks. (The final two words, “ut sol,” both translate as “as the sun” and act as solfege syllables. “Ut” is the  16th century equivalent of “do.”)  

Voices were weary by then, and the piece is not an ideal one to sing tired. The duets, though pleasant, were missing the vital spark that lit up the room at the beginning, and the blend of the first choruses had lost a bit of smoothness —  a change only noticeable because the other selections had been so excellent. However, the ensemble smoothed over the cracks before the end, with a brilliant chord on “Praecipuum” (“The highest place”), and there was the rising fifth on “ut sol,” shining through.

When I am Empress, Stile Antico will never be out of a job.

Did you enjoy the article?

Sign up to our weekly newsletter to receive the latest articles every Tuesday