Even the lightest music could have deadly serious implications in the England of Elizabeth I, as some composers discovered to their cost; the politics of the English Reformation and the constant jockeying for court favouritism lie so often in the background when we listen to an apparently ethereal Anthem or carefree Madrigal.
Nothing is only what it seems, and this many-layered musical reality was well brought out by Stile Antico – a twelve-strong, director-less, a cappella ensemble – at Wigmore Hall.
The programme mixed sacred with secular and English with continental to well-judged effect, and opened on-message with music overtly referencing the Virgin Queen: Byrd’s ‘O Lord make thy servant Elizabeth’, honey-rich but never wallowing in it, and carefully paced. The following Tallis was precise and even (and, as so often, a little sparer in feel than Byrd) with some subtle dynamics’ then the group switched to a livelier gear with much stronger textual emphases in Byrd’s ‘Attollite portas’ – a sophisticated masterpiece from the Cantiones Sacrae – and Lassus’s ‘Madonna mia pietà’.
A real highlight, albeit a brief one, was Willaert’s ‘Vecchie letrose’, sung by four men (the singers varied in number throughout the recital). Drawn from one of the Winchester Part Books gifted to Elizabeth by her suitor King Erik XIV of Sweden, this was funny, punchy and rhythmic, with hard consonants reflecting the composer’s Dutch origins. Sandrin’s ‘Doulce memoire’ provided a more blended contrast, followed by the ‘Exaudi deus’ and ‘Ad dominum cum tribularer’ from Ferrabosco (another of those composer-spies who seem sadly to have gone out of fashion several hundred years ago).
These foreign dalliances done with, it was back to Merrie England for the latter part of the programme. A beautiful pianissimo concluded the first Dowland piece and dancing rhythms in ‘Can she excuse’ were infectious. The final items returned to overt Elizabeth tribute, both coming from the collection The Triumphs of Oriana (a name frequently applied to the queen). Hey-nonny-no they might be, but this does not mean they are trivial to perform; the Weelkes, for example, could easily sound disjointed from a less-confident and -thoughtful ensemble. As an encore Stile Antico offered ‘Gaudete in domino’ from the Flemish composer Giaches de Wert, attractive and energetic, and a fitting conclusion to a concert which, among many other virtues, reminded us how cosmopolitan as well as complex the sixteenth-century music scene in England must have been.
- Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)
- Wigmore Hall www.wigmore-hall.org.uk