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The Habsburgs are hot property this year: the dynasty featured prominently at two of Europe’s leading early music festivals (Utrecht and York) and there have been a clutch of new books on the family’s fortunes during the 16th and 17th centuries. At its greatest extent, the Habsburg empire ruled over vast swathes of western Europe (as well as most of South America), and the mix of peoples and cultures that existed in Habsburg Europe is reflected in the latest recording by Stile Antico, in which they bring together works from the Spanish, Flemish, German and English schools of polyphony.

It’s a welcome return for Stile Antico to this continental repertoire – the crystalline, shimmering beauty that is their hallmark is tempered somewhat in much of the music because of the preponderance of lower parts and also owing to the occasional downwards transposition where it suits the music, but the results are no less spectacular. Lugubriousness and mourning draw the best from the ensemble on this recording: Senfl’s lament for the death of Emperor Maximilian I, Quis dabit oculis nostris, de la Rue’s Absalon fili mi, Alonso Lobo’s Versa est in luctum – if this is the music of melancholy, who needs to be happy? But the group bookends the disc with delightful performances of two decidedly festive works: Morales’s Jubilate Deo was written to celebrate a peace treaty between Spain and France, while Isaac’s monumental Virgo prudentissima (a paean of praise to Maximilian I) is 13 minutes of the finest I’ve ever heard Stile Antico sing.

Vienna-based all-male ensemble Cinquecento examine a very different side to Habsburg music, here presenting a recording of vernacular songs by four composers to the emperors Ferdinand I and Maximilian II. Of these, Philippe de Monte enjoyed the greatest reputation, but his chansons and many madrigals have often been overlooked in favour of his sacred compositions; while history has not been so kind on the whole to Jean Guyot, Jacob Regnart and Jacobus Vaet.

Cinquecento, however, have dedicated whole discs to the sacred music of de Monte, Regnart and Vaet, and as such are ideal advocates for their secular music. Actually, it’s Guyot whose chansons are the most interesting here – slightly older than the other three, his six-part writing seems to hark back to illustrious forebears such as Willaert and Clemens non Papa – although in de Monte’s settings we can hear why he was regarded as one of the most influential composers of his time. If a disc of Renaissance chansons all under four minutes in length might seem uninteresting at first glance, I urge you to reconsider: with such spirited and suave performances as these the album could be considered a platter of amuses-bouches, to be sampled and enjoyed for their variety rather than for their profundity. Dig in, I say.

Adrian Horsewood Read the full review on Agora Classica


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Early Music Today, 2014 - ©Rhinegold Publishing