British vocal ensemble Stile Antico makes stunning Washington debut

April 3, 2011

In this age of recording, when an increasing number of people’s main experience of music is through earbuds, it is important to be reminded of the imperfections — thrilling if occasionally vexing — of live performance. This was true of the stunning concert by the young English choir Stile Antico on Saturday night, hosted in their Washington debut by the Folger Consort at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation on Capitol Hill.

The dry acoustic of this venue, with not enough stone to create a space for sound to hang in the air, was not ideal for a program of unaccompanied Renaissance polyphony. It exposed some deficiencies that can be remedied through multiple takes in the recording process, such as occasional non-unified attacks, minor tuning discrepancies or one early entrance. These did nothing to detract from the enjoyment of the group’s crystalline sound, balanced and rarefied in many different configurations down to one-on-a-part arrangements, if slightly treble-heavy when all 12 singers were at full volume.

Polyphony and chants drawing from the rapturous love poetry of the biblical Song of Songs were taken from the ensemble’s 2009 disc on the Harmonia Mundi label.

While some selections were colorless in their tasteful restraint, others stood out for expressive highlights added by the singers, such as the slowing sigh at the words “quia amore langueo” in Guerrero’s “Ego flos campi.” Whether the text has erotic or spiritual meaning, heartbeats were set racing by the titillating crescendo on the words “ibi dabo tibi ubera mea” in Sebastian de Vivanco’s “Veni, dilecte mi.”

Due to the illness of one soprano, the scheduled concluding 12-part motet was replaced with the final piece from the CD, Tomas Luis de Victoria’s luscious “Vidi speciosam,” followed by an austere encore, the “Our Father” by John Sheppard.

Downey is a freelance writer.

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