The erotic and sensual poems from the biblical Song of Songs found surprising and gorgeous expression in European sacred polyphony during the Renaissance. For Valentine’s Day at Wigmore Hall, Stile Antico made choice selections, composed in Northern and Southern climes by men and women in holy orders and those not, illuminated by their own intense and committed approach to this repertoire.
Ego flos campi (I am a flower of the field) by Clemens non Papa provided a heavenly opener. The balance of voices was exquisite. Stile Antico’s sound is at once blended and individual, with equal weight to each part and composed of the same number of female voices to males with no countertenors. This imbues a richness of sound and complexity of meaning, especially in this programme where the narrative switches from a male point of view to a female perspective in texts such as Veni, dilecte me (Come my beloved) by Orlando de Lassus, Marian and erotic symbolism combined. Lassus’s Osculetur me (Let him kiss me) with an exultant soprano lead, succeeded in drawing the tenors and basses in hot pursuit.
Each segment of the programme was introduced and put into an historical context by a different member. Two smaller-scale early-sixteenth-century pieces came next by way of a palate cleanser: Gombert’s Quam pulchra est for low voices and Leonora d’Este’s Sicut lilium. As a woman, a nun and a noble, for d’Este, even as the daughter of Lucrezia Borgia, making music publicly was not on. Her brother Ercole’s thrilling setting of Descendi in hortum mei (I went into my garden) was a highlight. Victoria’s Vadam et circuibo combined the male and female experience of love and confusion, temporary loss and sorrow. It is one of the psychological masterpieces of Renaissance choral music, full of drama, as a woman seeks her lover through the streets and squares of a city.
Palestrina’s settings from the Song of Solomon diverge from his brilliant ceremonial Masses. His sultry Nigra sum plunged us back into the sun-drenched landscapes of ancient vineyards, whereas Robert White’s Tota pulchra est (Thou art wholly fair) upped the mystic and spiritual content away from earthly love. Lesser-known Spanish composers Vivanco, Guerrero (like Victoria a priest) and Ceballos explored the gardens of love with chromatic figures and dialogues between the soul and the body and the evening concluded with a resplendent Tota pulchra est by Hieronymus Praetorius. We were sent on our way by Dowland’s Now o now I needs must part, by way of an encore.