Stile Antico - Music for Compline
The final performance in this year’s splendidly successful Oxford Early Music Festival was a wonderful Stile Antico concert of music for compline, given in my favourite music venue in Oxford, the SJE on the Iffley Road. Stile Antico have been together now for 10 years, with their origins in Oxford, and now have an international reputation thoroughly deserved on this showing.
Compline is a final service to mark the completion of the working day in the Christian tradition. It harks back to a mediaeval time when worshippers gathered to commend themselves to God’s protection through the night. It has been the inspiration for outstanding English composers, who have written soul-uplifting music most appropriate to the Office. However, the concert was a little broader than compline as it included non-Catholic pieces with English texts and an anthem more appropriate to Evensong, but I doubt if anyone in the large and appreciative audience was about to quibble.
The twelve singers worked together without a conductor, using the slightest of nods and glances to start and keep time. They sang with apparently effortless skill and talent, borne of hours of purposeful practice no doubt, and the results were simply beautiful. The acoustic of the SJE helped in no small measure, especially during dynamic changes and at the ends of pieces, where the sound drifted up into the roof of the nave for those “ahh” moments.
The twenty pieces in the concert included works by Thomas Tallis and William Byrd, some plainsong, and a gorgeous longer work by John Tavernier, his Ave Dei Patris filia. Five were written by John Sheppard (1515-1558), who was Informator Choristarum at Magdalen College in the 1540s, including his sublime In Manus Tuas and the piece chosen to close the first half, Jesu Salvator Saeculi, Verbum, a masterpiece of the genre. Sheppard’s setting of The Lord’s Prayer is a favourite of Stile as they have included it in their new CD, out in June, a “best of” album with twelve tracks, each one chosen by a member of the group.
Twelve beautifully harmonious voices performing as one in a superb concert hall to an entranced audience? As they sang at the end of The Lord’s Prayer: always so be it.