To a full house, and broadcast live on Radio 3, the hugely popular Stile Antico a cappella group delivered an appropriately seasonal programme of motets and masses by Tallis and Byrd.
As Rick Jones observed in his programme essay, the very different political and religious climates in which these composers worked were reflected in their music. Tallis wrote his Missa Puer natus est nobis at a time when the Latin mass was freely enjoyed, but under the Elizabethan persecution Byrd’s motets had to be sung in secrecy: imprisonment was the least a Catholic priest could expect if discovered celebrating mass, with a disgustingly obscene public butchery being a not uncommon punishment. Tallis’s music is opulent and expansive, while Byrd’s has a clandestine intensity suggesting furtive meetings in secret rooms. Jones drew an apt analogy between the coded motifs in Byrd’s music and those in Shostakovich’s works.
Stile Antico did full justice to these composers’ contrasting styles, revelling in the muscular dissonances of Tallis and in the intricate magnificence of Byrd’s polyphonies; the Old Testament lament – ‘Zion is made a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation’ – came over with dark seriousness, while their encore, Orlando Gibbons’s ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’, rang to the heavens in pure jubilation. This group don’t go in for the theatrics of some of their competitors, but their wonderfully sustained and full-blooded sound has a narcotic effect, slowing even the listener’s heart-rate to a healthy level.
From the moment she skips on stage like a mischievous elf, the Norwegian-Russian pianist Natalia Strelchenko is nothing if not theatrical, and her current project is intriguing: she believes Chopin wrote his piano concertos with a very flexible accompanying combination in mind – anything from the full orchestra we are used to, down to a very small chamber group, which was how she presented them with the aid of the Moscow Chamber Music Academy. This meant Chopin’s concertos delivered with a piano plus a string quintet. Mirabile dictu, for at least part of the time it worked very well, partly because Chopin’s orchestral writing is often a mere amplification of what the pianist’s left hand is doing. Strelchenko is a serviceable pianist rather than a great one, and it was certainly a mistake to give the ‘Andante spianato’ the same treatment, but this was a revelatory evening.