Stile Antico, the 12-voice English choir specializing in Renaissance polyphony, will celebrate its 10th anniversary this summer. This relatively young group has given three concerts in Washington since 2011, all met with acclaim from this reviewer. The latest, on Wednesday night at the Church of the Ascension and Saint Agnes, was in an acoustic setting closer to the vaulted stone churches for which this austere music was intended.
The group has recorded much of the music in this concert on its most recent disc, devoted to pieces created for the Hapsburg imperial court. Some such pieces for official occasions are not masterworks, but the musicians made a persuasive case for them, with their full yet balanced sound, flawless intonation and sensitive approach to text. A quartet sang the four-voice “Mille regretz” of Josquin des Prez on the steps of the altar, matched later by a sextet for Nicolas Gombert’s six-voice augmentation of that piece, reportedly Emperor Charles V’s favorite song, a pleasing variation of sound.
Two funeral motets were the highlight of the evening, beginning with Pierre de la Rue’s “Absalon fili mi,” composed for the untimely death of Philip the Handsome, with its somber, descending melodic line at the words “I will descend into the netherworld, weeping.” The group likewise took Alonso Lobo’s “Versa est in luctum,” a funeral motet for Philip II of Spain, at a stately pulse, savoring the dissonant clashes and harmonic surprises.
Heinrich Isaac’s “Virgo prudentissima” tested some of the voices, but the full choir sections were robust, especially at the repeated perfect-fifth motif on the words “electa ut sol,” a clever musical joke on the solfege syllables ut-sol, which span that musical interval. William Byrd’s six-part Compline antiphon “Miserere mihi” made for a scrumptious encore, with its complex double canons.
Downey is a freelance writer.