Puer natus est: Tudor Music for Advent and Christmas
Thomas Tallis: Missa Puer natus est – Videte miraculum
John Taverner: Audivi vocem de caelo
William Byrd: Gradualia I, 1605: Rorate caeli desuper – Tollite portas – Ave Maria – Ecce virgo concipiet
Robert White: Magnificat
Plainchant: Puer natus est
John Sheppard: Verbum caro
Stile Antico: Helen Ashby, Kate Ashby, Rebecca Hickey, Katy Hill (sopranos), Emma Ashby, Eleanor Harries, Carris Jones (altos), Jim Clements, Andrew Griffiths, Benedict Hymas (tenors), James Arthur, Will Dawes (baritones), Oliver Hunt, Matthew O’Donovan (basses)
Recording at All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London (January 2010 ) – 68’09
harmonia mundi HMU 807517 – Booklet in English, French, and German
If you are as tired as I am of Frosty the Snowman, O Little Town of Bethlehem, and Adeste Fideles, you will find this recording extremely refreshing for the Holiday Season. Having been Choir Master at Saint Matthew Cathedral in Washington, D. C. for fifteen years, I know all of this music quite well, but it will probably be unfamiliar to most listeners. Do not let that shy you away from this recording. The music is most beautiful and very listenable at first hearing.
The recording showcases the most famous English composers of the Tudor era in stylistically accurate performances. It would have perhaps made better musical sense to program the Gregorian Chant Puer natus est first, as Tallis’s Missa puer natus est is based on the melody of the plainchant. It seems somewhat out of place as the next to last track.
Stile Antico is a young British ensemble comprised of fourteen solo voices which has been making quite a name for itself with débuts in New York, Boston, Bruges, and Amsterdam.
They have also toured extensively with Sting as part of his Dowland Lute Song Project, appearing in Europe, Australia, and the Far East. Their recording Song of Songs won the 2009 Grammy Award for Early Music.
I particularly delighted in the performances of the William Byrd Gradualia I and the Robert White Magnificat, which display an unusually fine understanding of the architecture of these early works. Yet as much as I enjoyed these recordings, the ensemble frequently suffers from problems typical of having no conductor, primarily the problem of vocal balance. The sound is often top heavy with too much sound from the sopranos. Attacks and cut-offs are often blurry and the rhythms often flabby. A good conductor would easily clean up these defects. Even if Stile Antico employed a conductor only in rehearsals it would improve the performances enormously.
Nonetheless, this is a recording which has much to offer and it makes a great change of pace from the usual Advent and Christmas music fares.