The Christmas holidays were not originally imbued with the splendor and overwhelmingly sophisticated sense of high festival that they began to achieve in the early Renaissance; indeed it was Easter and it alone that occupied pride of place, and still does in the Christian cycle. But Christmas, at least in the western church, no doubt because of its popular themes and very earthy story of agrarian-like personages latched onto a populist theme that eventually found its way into the compositional precedents of the high church as well. Tallis himself gave this mass a large scope full of superb craft and intricate writing, allowing a splendor and grandiosity that indicates the importance of this festival in the late sixteenth century. The numerology involved and almost Webern-esque attention to every aspect of detail serve to give the work a depth and emotional force that exceeds most others even at a time when the latest techniques were intent on serving up just such a splendiferous aural and religious experience.
Stile Antico supplies the Propers to this mass with four works by William Byrd. The noted recusant had achieved a place in society that seemed to insulate himself and his family from any governmental inquiries into his activities. These are the texts proper to the season from the Gradualia of 1605, from the votive services to the Blessed Virgin during Advent. Byrd does not take the time that Tallis consumes, and is always (even in general) more concise in his musical language. Yet few composers are as adept at getting to the point of the text so quickly and elevating the listener to the required level of emotional pleasure.
The remainder of the program features Taverner, White, and Sheppard, each particular to the season, especially Sheppard's brilliant Verbum caro, a piece of unusual and thrilling harmonic changes and powerful eight-part choral ending. Stile Antico is rapidly moving into one of the premiere spots of the recent choral charts, and every release thus far has been highly significant. This Christmas offering stands out among similar releases in a very competitive field, and Harmonia mundi has captured them in wondrous surround sound fashion at All Hollows Church in London. A fabulous disc just in time for the holidays!