If you want proof of the extent to which ‘early music’ is now enshrined in our culture, look no further than the packed Wigmore Hall on Easter Sunday, where the a cappella group Stile Antico were singing Renaissance motets which not so long ago would have drawn a small cohort of sandalled beardies and flower-maidens.
Early music may by definition be by dead composers, but no musical field is more pulsating with life. It means rediscovered repertoire, and rediscovered performance styles, and gone are the days when the more-authentic-than-thou brigade sought to impose its own brand of style-fascism, with pioneer-harpsichordist Wanda Landowska’s notorious remark - ‘You play Bach your way, I will play him Bach’s way’ – encapsulating what made it so insufferable. For there are no period audiences: the goal of ‘early’ music-making must be – as with any other music-making - to please the audience of its day, not to cater for the
And since the Tallis Scholars paved the way back in the Seventies, the a cappella sphere has become thronged with fine groups, from the Gabrieli Consort to the Cardinalls Musick, from The Sixteen to I Fagiolini, with the young ex-Oxbridge Stile Antico being the new kids on the block. They’ve twice been Grammy-nominated, their Cds regularly win awards, and Sting chose them as partners for his ill-advised foray into Elizabethanism.
Stile Antico’s performance style is the polar opposite of I Fagiolini’s flamboyance. Working without a conductor, they operate like chamber musicians: all you have to watch is them quietly changing places between numbers, in their black-clad semi-circle. But to spend 70 unbroken minutes in their company, revelling in the warmth and balance of their bass- and contralto-rich sound, is pure delight. Their latest Cd (HMU 807554) focuses on Tudor and Jacobean music for private devotion: this concert consisted of Easter-week ecclesiastical fare. Beginning with Gibbons’s ‘Hosanna to the son of David’ – which rang out as though through a cloudless sky – they then dived into the dark regions of the Passion with anthems by Tallis, Victoria, de Lassus, and the mysterious (because biographically undocumented) John Browne. In effect we got a tour d’horizon of ten different polyphonic styles, some trading on muscular dissonance, others on madrigal virtuosity. Fascinating.