LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Media vita; Te Deum; Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria; Christ rising again; The Lord’s Prayer; Haste thee, O God; I give you a new commandment
PERFORMER: Stile Antico
CATALOGUE NO: HMU 807509
The award-winning young British a cappella ensemble Stile Antico prides itself on working without a conductor. Given its number of singers (14) and their youthfulness, this is a bold choice. Although the ensemble’s readings are often startlingly mature, a director might have been advisable before tackling the works of John Sheppard.
The qualities which have earned Stile Antico international acclaim are intact: a glorious euphony, muscular line and nuanced dynamics illuminate the majesty of Sheppard’s music. Stile Antico also capitalises wonderfully on the composer’s interplay of textures, contrasting plush homophony against vulnerable filigree. Contrasts in register are neatly caught, and slow crescendos elegantly paced.
The group seems at a loss, however, in knowing how to shape phrases, as a result of which we don’t hear the rhetoric implicit in Sheppard’s settings. This is particularly crucial in Media vita, the vastness of which demands that singers probe the phrasing to convey the work’s overall architecture.
Stile Antico also shies away from dissonance, yet ugly moments are part of Sheppard’s eloquence. The group’s focus on surface attraction smacks of ‘product’, as does the gloss that the sound engineers have laid over the voices.
For listeners who revel in the beauty of English Renaissance polyphony, this disc is nothing short of perfect. For those who want to explore its complexities, the Tallis Scholars are a surer guide. Berta Joncus