Chamber Prom 6, Stile Antico, Cadogan Hall

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The Independent Culture

With a technicians’ strike looming, Proms director Roger Wright has enough on his plate, but here is a simpler challenge for him: to provide programmes for the Chamber Proms at the Cadogan Hall which don’t shamefully undersell them.

One has the feeling that these events are a half-hearted Proms add-on. Although the hall has a fine acoustic, it’s a terrible rat-trap, and heaven knows how it passed borough fire regulations. But these concerts are consistently first-class, often presenting new or unfamiliar repertoire. How comes it that while programmes for the main Proms are drowning in information – every performance of every work by Mozart gets the same familiar composer-biography – those for Cadogan concerts give no composer-information at all?

Stile Antico’s concert of 16th century settings of the ‘Song of Songs’ opened with a piece by Jacobus Clemens non Papa (1510-1555), and it might have been worth saying who he was, and how he came by his very weird name. And it would definitely have been worth sketching in the background to this great devotional text, with its fascinating parallel ramifications in Marian Christianity and Sufi Islam, in which human and divine love are likewise conflated.

Stile Antico are a group of Oxbridge graduates who started singing for fun, but then discovered they were serious about it: as Grammy-garlanded superstars, they are now showing how thrilling a cappella music by the Renaissance masters can be, and this concert was typically flawless. Their sound was wonderfully clean and vibrant, and their democratic decision not to have a conductor – to operate, in effect, as chamber musicians – was triumphantly vindicated: no conductor could have calibrated this ensemble performance more finely.

After the smoothly-sustained melodic lines of Clemens came some angular Palestrina, then a richly sonorous setting by Nicolas Gombert. Lassus’s ‘Veni, dilecte mi’ – setting a part of the text which was sexual in the extreme – was followed by Victoria’s magnificent ‘I will arise and go about the city, I will seek him whom my soul loves...’ Exquisite fragments of plainchant punctuated the longer pieces; the finale was a jubilant piece by Praetorius in which the choir subdivided into three smaller units. In short, this was a cappella heaven; on Saturday it will be broadcast on Radio 3. Michael Church

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