It’s not easy to conceive and successfully impose a concert-performance dynamic on the formal, square structures of Tallis’ Psalm-tune settings, bringing an air of excitement to these essentially functional church pieces. In most circumstances these works merely sound, well, like formal and square hymns, albeit very well crafted with strong, sturdy melodies and occasionally interesting harmony. But if you’ve been paying attention to the choral music scene lately, you know to expect that Stile Antico–a conductorless British ensemble of 13 (or so) young singers–is more than capable of giving exciting new life to old music, and that’s exactly what we get here. There’s energy and vitality in the singing that gives unusual substance and power to these very short (most around one minute or less), text-centered settings.
Of course, it was a very good programming idea to intersperse the brief Psalm-tunes with some of William Byrd’s most substantial motets. Ne irascaris Domine, Infelix ego, Laetentur coeli, and Tribulationes civitatum stand among Byrd’s greatest works–indeed, among the most valued treasures of choral music. As such, they are oft-performed and recorded–and not surprisingly Stile Antico’s renditions join with the very best in the catalog. Although I’m not so much a fan of this ensemble’s very slow tempo for Ne irascaris, these singers certainly have the control to generate and sustain the necessary momentum–and the beautifully-wrought ending (a trademark of this group!) negates all earlier reservations regarding tempo. Laetentur coeli (no holding back here!) is a highlight worthy of special mention–an example of both Stile Antico’s remarkable ensemble balance and sensitive linear interplay and the exceptionally complementary sound that captures these details so clearly and vibrantly. Not to be missed! [1/24/2008]