Puer natus est: Tudor Music for Advent and Christmas Stile Antico (harmonia mundi)
The prize-winning British choir Stile Antico has made a specialty of English sacred repertoire from the Renaissance, by composers such as Taverner, Tallis, Byrd and Sheppard. Wrap those same names around music for the holiday season and we have Stile Antico's latest recording.
Placid as this music may seem on the surface, it no more reflects a tranquil reality than eupeptic pop songs about Santa reflect a vibrant economy. Listen closely, in fact, and the extraordinary dissonance so distinctive of English music - that sudden curdling of the harmony - echoes the political turbulence of the Tudor era.
We may prefer to remember the reign of Elizabeth I, the last of the Tudors, as a stable one, but heads rolled for her as they had for her father, Henry VIII, and for her half-siblings before her. Much of the violence was religious: Fine to be a Protestant under Edward VI, for example; not so fine to be one under Mary Tudor, whose perfervid Catholicism inspired a savage Inquisitorial zeal. Even Elizabeth's tolerance was unpredictable: A composer who safely wrote a Catholic mass one year could be threatened with prison the next.
Thomas Tallis, a Catholic, was the premier composer of the Tudor era, serving, with remarkable adaptability, all four monarchs mentioned above. He wrote his Christmas mass Puer natus est - which comprises the core of Stile Antico's disc - for Philip II of Spain's cunning marriage to Mary Tudor in 1554. The work is extravagant in having seven separate, continuous voices throughout, but its drooping phrases make it surprisingly sedate, a quality exaggerated in Stile Antico's slow, somewhat opaque interpretation. The motet Videte miraculum establishes a more rapturous affect, although it is here that Tallis's use of dissonance seems most emblematic of two faiths in collision.
Both the Tallis Scholars and Andrew Parrott's Taverner Consort and Choir have also recorded some of these same Tallis compositions. The latter's performance of Videte miraculum is more virile but less ethereal than Stile Antico's; the Tallis Scholars inject more energy into Puer natus est, but the sopranos place and hold their high notes with a laser-like, Toys-R-Us brightness that jars with the solacing gloom of a 16th-century chapel.
Stile Antico's pure but gentler blend gives motets by William Byrd an unassuming beauty and refinement. These are not, strictly speaking, Tudor works, since they date from 1605 and the reign of James I, when the failed Catholic Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament made it even riskier to be so brazen a Catholic as Byrd. Not that any of this is evident in the music, unless one chooses to read Stile Antico's marvellous escalations into final cadences as defiance.
Jubilation, though, is what one expects at Christmas, and this we find, too: in the "Gloria" from Tallis's mass; in Robert White's Magnificat; and in the wide-open majesty of John Sheppard's Verbum caro, which is, as its last line declares, "full of grace and truth."
Special to The Globe and Mail
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