Monday, 15 July 2019

To the max: from 40 to 60 parts in Striggio's mass from the Armonico Consort and choir of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge

Supersize Polyphony
Supersize Polyphony Striggio Missa sopra Ecco Si Beato Giorno, Tallis Spem in alium; Armonico Consort, choir of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, Christopher Monks; Signum
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 3 July 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Striggio's mammoth mass recorded for the first time with all vocal forces

Until relatively recently the name Alessandro Striggio was known not so much for his music as for a masterpiece by another composer that he engendered. In 1561 Striggio wrote his 40-part motet Ecce beatam lucem and travelled around Europe with it, part books perhaps strapped to a donkey. In England he may have met Thomas Tallis, who certainly heard the motet. The rest, as they say, his history and Tallis' 40-part motet Spem in alium has rather overshadowed that of Striggio. See my interview with Christopher Monks.

On this disc Supersize Polyphony on Signum Classics, Christopher Monks directs his Armonico Consort and the Choir of Gonville and Caius College (musical director Geoffrey Webber) in Striggio's Ecce beatam lucem and Missa sopra Ecco Si Beato Giorno, and Tallis' Spem in alium interspersed with chant by Hildergard of Bingen. The disc follows Supersize polyphony performances in which the two choirs were joined by a choir local to the venue (the mass moves from 40 parts to 60 parts in the 'Agnus Dei').

Striggio was born in Mantua to an aristocratic family, by 1559 he was working as a musician for Cosimo di Medici in Florence, visiting Venice and going on a diplomatic mission to England in 1567. Ecce beatam lucem was written for a royal marriage at the Bavarian court. Striggio would become friends with the composer Vincenzo Galilei (father of the astronomer), and Striggio himself was the father of Alessandro junior who wrote the libretto for Monteverdi's opera L'Orfeo. Striggio's mass based on the motet was discovered in 2005 and received its first modern performance at the BBC Proms in 2007 (it may well have never been performed in Striggio's lifetime).

In writing the mass Striggio seems to have been very influenced by Venetian polychoral music (his madrigals by contrast were very advanced in style) and he intended the motet and the mass to be performed by a mixture of singers and instruments.



Here Christopher Monks and his choirs perform the music with voices along with just a lone bass sackbut (Adrian France). The result is a very contemporary version of Striggio, but a perfectly valid choice. Heard live, the singers performed in the round which must have been a very striking way to hear the Striggio, where he writes for five choirs of eight voices used in poly-choral blocks. But on the disc there is very much a wall of sound. This is massive music for large architecture (on wonders where in 16th century Munich the motet was performed). Striggio's harmony is relatively static, how could it not be with such forces, and the use of only voices emphasises the blocks, but when harmonic change occurs the moment can be magical. But don't get me wrong, the complexity of this music is immense and part of the enjoyment is listening to the detail.

Tallis was less interested in his choirs answering each other, and instead wove his magic in a piece of large scale polyphony which harks back to the complex pieces he wrote as a young man.

This disc gives us a chance for a different take on this music (Robert Hollingworth and I Fagiolini recorded the Alessandro Striggio with a mix of voice and instruments on Decca), and Christopher Monks marshalls his forces well. The small scale pieces are beautifully done, creating just the right sense of constrast. If you can, listen to this disc in surround so that you are truly enveloped in this magical world.
Alessandro Striggio (1536/37 - 1592) - Ecce Beatam Lucem a 40
Alessandro Striggio - Missa sopra Ecco Si Beato Giorno
Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) - Ave Generosa
Hildegard of Bingen - O Virtus Sapientiae
Hildegard of Bingen - O Vos felices radices
Hildegard of Bingen - Spiritus Sanctus Vivicans
Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585) - O Nata Lux
Thomas Tallis - Spem in Alium plainchant
Thomas Tallis - Spem in Alium
Armonico Consort
Choir of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge
Christopher Monks (conductor)
Adrian France (bass sackbut)
Recorded in St George's Church, Cambridge, 8-10 July 2018
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD560 1CD [61.37]

Available from Amazon.

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  • Young Artists Performance of Verdi's Un ballo in maschera at Opera Holland Park - opera review
  • From Supersize Polyphony to choir creation: I chat to Christopher Monks of Armonico Consort - interview
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