Sometimes the best way to champion early music is to perform it as beautifully as possible and forget about how it might have been performed when it was composed. This was exactly what the English chamber choir Stile Antico did, once again, in its exquisite concert Wednesday night at the Library of Congress, a venue with more suitable acoustics for unaccompanied Renaissance polyphony than the choir had for its Washington debut two years ago.
With just 12 singers, and in some cases fewer, the group achieved a balanced blend of sound, each part taking and then ceding its turn in the layering of parts. All entrances and conclusions lined up, careful coordination among singers obviating the need for a conductor, and the tuning of harmonies and unity of vowels were nearly immaculate. The program was presented as an “overview of the national styles of the [late] Renaissance,” but it also happened to be a survey of the group’s series of excellent recordings on the Harmonia Mundi label. If the group has a specialty, it is English polyphony, and motets by William Byrd, Thomas Tallis and especially “The Lord’s Prayer” by John Sheppard stood out.
The sensitivity of the performance put delightful details that might otherwise go unnoticed into relief, such as the seven-part entrances — like a multifaceted jewel — in Clemens non Papa’s “Ego Flos Campi” and the many repetitions of “et semini ejus” scattered like seeds through Gombert’s “Magnificat primi toni.” Each half concluded grandly with a 12-part tour de force, the perfectly tuned dissonant clusters of John McCabe’s “Woefully Arrayed,” a new work composed for the group in 2009, and the climactic, many-voiced shouts of Praetorius’s triple-choir “Tota pulchra es.” To borrow the translation for the word “Amen” used at the end of the Sheppard motet: “Always so be it.”
Downey is a freelance writer.