In a Strange Land – Elizabethan Composers in Exile
Dowland Flow, My Tears; In This Trembling Shadow; Byrd Tristitia et anxietas; Quomodo cantabimus; Dering Factum est silentium; Philippe de Monte Super flumina Babylonis; P Philips Gaude Maria virgo; Regina caeli laetare; H Watkins The Phoenix and the Turtle; Robert White Lamentations
Harmonia Mundi HMM 902266 69:37 mins
To Catholics caught up in the slipstream of Henry VIII’s Protestant Reformation the notion of exile could be geographical, spiritual or emotional. Composers such as Dering or Philips sought refuge on the continent; Byrd and Tallis meanwhile stayed at home relying on the protection afforded by Royal patronage. And in plangent Old Testament outpourings of despair they found texts to sound their predicament and send covert messages of support to fellow recusants. Such is the background to Stile Antico’s new disc, though its point of departure couldn’t be more unexpected: a consort arrangement of Flow, my tears – Dowland’s supposed flirtation with Rome less germane than his hotline to the melancholic zeitgeist.
The sumptuous choral supersizing softens the visceral immediacy of the lute-accompanied solo voice original, but it’s not the only surprise up Stile Antico’s Renaissance sleeve. An unexpected swerve incorporates Huw Watkins’s 2014 setting of Shakespeare’s allegory The Phoenix and the Turtle. The liner note curiously describes the first section as vividly portraying ‘the busy hustle and bustle of funeral preparations’, and if marrying that to the text is a bit of a stretch, it certainly describes the music – delivered with panache. But then Watkins has 13 chewy stanzas to set before he reaches the final five verses of a Threnody affecting in its exquisitely-realised simplicity. More predictably the consort dishes up a sympathetically-paced account of White’s Lamentations; and Byrd’s eight-part Tristia et anxietas is measured and dignified, emphasising the serenity of faith rather than penitential breast-beating. Unsurprisingly, refinement abounds, though sometimes at the expense of ‘bite’.