Friday, 4 December 2015

Many wonderful moments on Stile Antico’s highly recommendable new Christmas release, A Wondrous Mystery, from Harmonia Mundi

Stile Antico  continue their fine series of recordings for Harmonia Mundi  with the release of a Christmas disc entitled A Wondrous Mystery, bringing works by Michael Praetorius, Clemens non Papa, Hieronymus Praetorius, Jacob Handl, Johannes Eccard and Hans Leo Hassler.

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HMU 807575

It is Clemens non Papa’s Missa Pastores quidnam vidistis that is the framework around which Stile Antico place the other works on this disc. However, they begin with Michael Praetorius’ (c.1571-1621) Ein Kind geborn in Bethlehem with the female voices of this fine choir bringing a lovely simplicity to the opening of this carol. The other voices slowly take over bringing a richness and warmth with glorious harmonies. This piece is often given a large scale treatment with brass but how much better this is as the music rises subtly in power for the coda.

Next the choir bring the Motet Pastores quidnam vidistis by Jacobus Clemens (Clement) non Papa (c.1510-c.1555). It seems that the ‘non Papa’ tag was added humorously to distinguish him from Pope Clement VII who died in 1534. These voices bring a beautifully unfolding performance with a lovely central section where the female voices gently lead before the whole choir join weaving some lovely textures. This is a real joy with choral singing of the highest order.

Michael Praetorius’ harmonisation of the traditional Es ist ein Ros entsprungen is interspersed by a canon by Melchior Vulpius (c.1570-1615). This is another carol that will be recognised by all, given a carefully nuanced performance with subtle little dynamic changes. Centrally a pure voiced solo soprano is soon joined by the other female voices in a most beautiful blending of voices before the whole choir leads to the coda.

Stile Antico then bring us the first part of Jacobus Clemens non Papa’s Missa Pastores quidnam vidistis. A slowly unfolding Kyrie is slowly allowed to flow forward, revealing all the lovely harmonies and textures. Again the female voices bring moments of pure voiced beauty before the whole choir add richer sonorities. Quite beautiful.

The lesser known Slovenian composer Jacob Handl (1550-1591) is represented by two works on this disc; firstly his Canite tuba where the male voices of the choir push forward in beautiful layers, showing their fine flexibility, astounding accuracy and lovely blend in the faster moving passages.  

From the tenor solo in the plainchant of Gloria of Clemens non Papa’s Missa Pastores quidnam vidistis to the final Amen this choir bring a beautifully nuanced, subtly controlled performance with lovely dynamics and tempi – and of course the most glorious harmonies and textures. There are some very fine quieter moments before the music gently builds again.

Although Hieronymus Praetorius (1560-1629) had a composer son, Jacob (1586-1651) he was no relation to Michael Praetorius. Male voices slowly announce the Magnificat quinti toni before female voices join, then the whole choir with basses adding a very fine richness and depth. This choir bring a fine rhythmic quality with some lovely tenor voices in the plainchant. At one point I was sure that there was a hint of In Dulci Jubilo. Either way this is a great choice for a Christmas recital. There is a spectacularly fine Amen.

There is a plainchant opening to the Credo of Clemens non Papa’s Missa Pastores quidnam vidistis before Stile Antico move quickly forward with a fine blend and flow with some wonderfully restrained passages beautifully underpinned by the basses. Later, around the word Crucifixus there is a lovely quiet, slow, gently controlled passage gorgeously sung.  

Jacob Handl’s Mirabile mysterium gives us the title of this disc, Wondrous Mystery. It reveals itself slowly as it unfolds with some beautiful harmonies, finely developed here. This is a really fine work.

Another perhaps unfamiliar name is that of German composer, Johannes Eccard (1553-1611) who eventually became Kapellmeister in Berlin. His Übers Gebirg Maria geht rises full of cheer with this choir bringing some very fine, uplifting moments.

Next comes another section of Clemens non Pap’s Missa Pastores quidnam vidistis, the Sanctus & Benedictus where the female voices lead before the whole choir weaves the most mellifluous choral textures, a gentle, flexible, forward flow, rising to moments of increased passion. There is a wonderfully developed, restrained Benedictus before the music picks up a brief rhythmic pulse just before the gentle coda.  

This choir bring a real thrust to Johannes Eccard’s Vom Himmel hoch whilst weaving some lovely textures and sonorities.

The German composer, Hans Leo Hassler (bap. 1564; d.1612) was Kapellmeister at the Saxon court chapel. His Hodie Christus natus est is a really joyful work with the individual voices of this choir really shining through. These singers bring a beautiful control through the many varied tempi and dynamics, building rich textures with a rousing Alleluia to end.

Stile Antico conclude their Christmas recital with the Agnus Dei of Clemens non Papa’s Missa Pastores quidnam vidistis. It gently unfolds, bringing a Christmas peace whilst rising to some wonderful moments beautifully revealed by this choir.

If one wishes to play the entire Clemens non Papa Mass without a break, then the tracks can easily be programmed. 

I cannot speak too highly of this fine choir or this new release. They are beautifully recorded at All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London, UK and there are excellent notes in the nicely illustrated booklet, together with full texts and translations.

A Wondrous Mystery from this Wondrous Choir. Buy, sit back and enjoy!

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