Stile Antico (at left) the new early music vocal ensemble from Britain; rave has followed rave for their album releases (I think the Globe described their last one as "perfect"), and everyone seems to adore them even more since they were tapped by Sting for The Journey and the Labyrinth, his exploration of the music of John Dowland. If early music ever makes the pop charts, the thinking goes, Stile Antico might just be the group to do it.
The ensemble made its American debut last year at the Boston Early Music Festival, to great applause, and returned for a nearly sold-out performance this past weekend at St. Paul's Church in Harvard Square, one of those reactionary Catholic fantasias in which almost every kind of sacred architecture is piled togetherr, willy-nilly; St. Paul's design is roughly Italo-Gothic-Romanesque, with medieval friezes rubbing shoulders with baroque and even Tudor flourishes. It may not make aesthetic sense, but damn it puts the fear of God into you.
Still, if St. Paul's is an architectural hoot, it's also big and resonant, and an effective, if slightly crude, setting for the sepulchral sacred music that Stile Antico favors. For their program on Saturday, the group had chosen music that was literally to die for - and a lot of it, too. We got songs from the funeral of Philip II of Spain, as well as the entombment of Saxon nobleman Heinrich Reuss Posthumus (fitting name, no?), and the commemorative mass for René d'Anjou, King of Sicily (the Pope shaved off a thousand years in Purgatory for those who recited this text, which may give you some idea of how much fun it is). We even got a song from Dufay that was composed to be sung around the composer's own deathbed, at the moment he expired. I don't think I've ever heard quite so much Catholic lachrymosity in a single sitting; needless to say, when my partner and I got home, we watched Singin' in the Rain three times in a row.
Still, all the necrophilic dolor was heartfelt and lovely - it was just too relentless. And while Stile Antico sang beautifully, would you think me a bad person if I whispered that they're not quite as good as Sting thinks they are? The women, particularly the sopranos, are absolutely fabulous, it's true, with an effortless pure tone and a breathtaking sense of balance. Meanwhile the men are very good - but not quite as good as, say, Chanticleer or the Tallis Scholars; the tenors don't always have as much power as you'd like, and there's an odd buzz in the basses. The ensemble formed as a college group, and to be frank, sometimes it still sounds like one, albeit a very good one; plus it dispenses with a conductor - because you know, conductors are so yesterday (unlike early music) - but it's my impression that the men could use one. For interpretive questions always seem to be left open by the lack of a conductor; like A Far Cry, a local conductor-free string ensemble, Stile Antico seems to have an earnest stance but not much of a profile - because when a collective is making the artistic decisions, said decisions tend to regress to the mean; thus, just about every composer in this program sounded much like every other composer.
Of course sometimes the mean is pretty darn good - and to be honest, even Stile Antico's death-wish sometimes sounded like a tonic; for how often is death, and the question of the soul's rest, pondered by contemporary music? Almost never. True, to the academic, agnostic, gay-Jewish milieu of the early music scene, this concert's spiritual content was pretty alien (it might as well have come from a Tibetan monastery) - but it was still refreshing, if a little depressing, to hear so much calm contemplation of mortality. And Stile Antico brought true intensity to several pieces, particularly John Sheppard's epic Media vita, which dominated the first half of the program. Likewise there were heartbreakingly beautiful moments in the Dufay, as well as in William Byrd's "Retire my soul." A piece from the German requiem of Heinrich Schütz (one of the few Protestants - sort of - in the program) brought a livelier attack to the proceedings without any diminution in emotion. Still, when Schütz is as lively as your program gets, frankly it may be time for a variety check.