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
OTHER NEW RELEASES
Love Letter R. Kelly (Jive)
Although the cover, which shows Kelly doing his Ray Charles impression, suggests a retro effort, the music itself shows scant evidence of any interest in earlier R&B. Love Is, his duet with K. Michelle, is a coarse evocation of Marvin Gaye's duets with Tammi Terrel, and Just Like That does sound a bit like later Stevie Wonder, but on the whole Kelly's most overt nod to the past is that his songs speak of love instead of merely wallowing in sex. But it's not surprising that Kelly doesn't fit the old-school lover-man role, as the fires burning within him seem to be centred somewhere south of his heart. J.D. Considine
Odditties Kate & Anna McGarrigle (Querbeservice)
This album includes a few McGarrigle originals - modestly tucked at the end of the disc - that have shown up before only on TV soundtracks or compilations, or nowhere but a drawer in one of the sisters' houses. Lullaby for a Doll (actually a slow waltz) is Kate's tender and unflinching look at the passage of childhood things and their return when motherhood arrives. Anna's lament Louis the Cat (written with Audrey Bean, one of many McGarrigle friends and family who contributed to the album) is a living-room demo with car horns felicitously audible soon after the lyrics speak of looking for a lost pet in familiar alleys. The disc opens with four aquatinted Stephen Foster songs, including the concert staple Gentle Annie, and also features Wade Hemsworth's charming The Log Driver's Waltz and the rollicking Cajun song, Parlez-Nous à Boire. All essential listening for anyone touched by the hearty celestial art of Anna and Kate, who died earlier this year. Robert Everett-Green
4 x 4 = 12 Deadmau5 (Mau5trap/Ultra)
Deadmau5 - a.k.a. Niagara Falls, Ont., native Joel Zimmerman - is famous on the DJ circuit for bringing a pop-concert theatricality to dance music performance, but that's not the reason to check out his third album (although the visuals on the iTunes deluxe version are stunning). What sets Deadmau5 apart from the progressive house pack is that his tracks eschew the simple math of additive composition, preferring instead to let his rhythmic, melodic and textural ideas develop into entrancingly complex structures. It's more of an algorithmic (algorhythmic?) approach, juggling anticipation and release with enough dexterity to ensure that the music is as pleasurable for listening as it is for dancing. J.D. Considine
Ghost Blonde No Joy (Mexican Summer)
Who are you, No Joy? What are you singing about, and what goes through your mind as you gaze at your shoes? No Joy, the new Montreal girl-duo of one drummer and one singer-guitarist, does not name its membership on an often awesome debut album. Reverb, feedback and buzzing fuzz-sheets of a guitar's whitened noise disguise lyrics (but never melody). You Guys Smoke Cigarettes? has a peaceful fury to it; the first part of Pacific Pride is the day's best daydream; Still has the determined drone of Dinosaur Jr. There is freedom in anonymity, bliss in mindlessness. No Joy, who makes an immaculate and mysterious din, doesn't owe anyone any answers. Brad Wheeler
Follow us on Twitter: