Notes and Editorial Reviews
*** PLEASE NOTE: THE INCLUDED BONUS DVD IS IN PAL FORMAT AND MAY NOT PLAY ON NORTH AMERICAN DVD PLAYERS. ***
Decca is proud to release the world-premiere CD recording of Striggio’s long-lost 40-part mass, Missa Ecco sì beato giorno, the music thought to have inspired Tallis’s masterpiece Spem in alium. Recorded by I Fagiolini in celebration of its 25th anniversary, the disc is accompanied by Spem in alium and Striggio’s other tour de force upon which the mass is based, the motet Ecce beatam lucem.
Both the mass and motets have been recorded in the round, providing a genuinely revealing use for 5.1 surround-sound which can be heard on the accompanying DVD. The result reproduces both
the grandeur and intimacy of the music, and imaginatively brings together not just voices but the full gamut of Renaissance instrumental colour (strings, brass, wind and lutes).
Not for a long time has such an ambitious recording project of almost entirely Renaissance world première recordings been undertaken with forces on this scale. The album is a tantalising showcase for some of the finest talent in the world of Renaissance performance, all conducted by I Fagiolini’s founder Robert Hollingworth.
Although references to Striggio’s mass exist from his 1567 European journey, the work was lost until its re-discovery a few years ago and its first modern-day performance at the 2007 BBC Proms. This recording uses the edition made by Hollingworth and Brian Clark and recently published by the Early Music Company.
Also recorded is Tallis’ 40-part Spem in alium; notably this performance uses instruments (another recording première), and benefits from Hugh Keyte's new edition of the work which corrects previous errors and proposes a new theory about the work. The recording is completed with an imaginative selection of fascinating Striggio works (many for political occasions), all world premières.
This extraordinary album is accompanied by a bonus DVD which features a 12-minute behind-the-scenes film made during the recording and 5.1 surround-sound files of the large-scale works. The film features head-to-heads with conductor, producer, and some of the performers.
R E V I E W:
This is one of those releases which only comes along once in a blue moon - a newly rediscovered Renaissance masterpiece given its first commercial recording after a good deal of hard work and scholarly research and serious decision-making. ‘The Making of Striggio’ documentary explains pretty much all you would want to know about Alessandro Striggio and the context of the music on this recording. Born in Mantua, Striggio was based both there and as a member of the Medici court in Florence. The 40 part
Ecce beatem lucem is already well known from its 1980 edition by Hugh Keyte, and formed the basis of the Mass on
Ecco sì beato giorno. This was written as a gift for the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II, all part of a certain amount of political manoeuvring which involved Striggio travelling as far as London, where evidence strongly suggests his settings were an influence on events in England, resulting in Tallis writing
Spem in Alium. The Mass was believed lost for many years, and only uncovered in Paris quite recently by Davitt Moroney.
As Robert Hollingworth points out in the DVD, there is no qualitative choice to be made between Striggio’s music and Tallis’s in the same field. The Striggio settings pre-date
Spem in alium by a number of years and inhabit a different stylistic time and space. Hollingworth has ‘gone down the Munich route’, taking the illustrations and documentation of known performances of the Mass with a large array of instruments. This serves to enrich an already mighty feast of vocal noise, and the initial impact of the music makes you feel as if you could levitate on its luxuriant sound with relative ease. Striggio’s Missa
Ecco sì beato giorno is where most of the attention will be focussed with this release. It is a mesmerising sequence of often slowly moving harmonies. The large scale of the forces used and the acoustic in which they are working unite these elements into an organic whole. Compared with Tallis the harmonic language is indeed relatively conservative, but is certainly not lacking in colour and drama. There are points at which the contrasts of transparency and the full force of the entire ensemble have a telling effect for instance in those breathtaking
tutti moments and in the
Gloria. There the music shifts in fluid motion between soloists and individual choirs.
This recording has brought together representatives from numerous early music specialist ensembles such as Fretwork and the Rose Consort, but the performance doesn’t shy away from full-blooded projection, and the vocalists are given free rein to let loose with plenty of vibrato when everyone is giving their all. This recording may indeed even serve as a substitute hair-dryer when all voices are in full flow. Tastes will no doubt differ on this subject. My opinion is that such a huge body of sound needs the weight of ‘proper singing’, and that the moments where a little more restraint helps the sense of contrast between vast-scale music-making and more intimate episodes have been used sensibly. Take the gentler opening of the
Sanctus, where there is a good deal of reserve and subtle shading in the colour of the singing, the richer choral sound held back until later on. This is one of those pieces for which you need to abandon your modern sense of time and enter an entirely different world. Events unfold slowly and grow and develop at a more monumental pace than the relatively compact Tallis work. In part of the documentary the sound engineer mentions a balance which has to be struck between clarity and overall perspective; indeed, the words of the Mass are less easily followed the more voices are thrown at them. This however is not really the point. It is the import; the meaning and religious feeling behind the words which is decisive, and with this piece there is no avoiding the fervour of the message in this Mass. It is a splendid masterpiece, and I feel privileged to be able to hear it.
The collection of other works which support the Mass also have plenty of interest. Striggio’s mastery of the viol is represented by a sizeable consort of these instruments backing a superb lute solo in Vincenzo Galilei’s
Contrapunto Secundo di BM. Striggio in fact wrote relatively few sacred works, and the vocal pieces which follow are occasional works and examples from the composer’s books of madrigals.
D’ogni gratia et d’amor was written to commemorate his visit to England, where he was received by Queen Elizabeth and the ‘virtuosi of the music profession there’. These are all fine works given impressive and richly instrumented performances, and serve to put the bigger settings into a context of what would have been more familiar fare in the courts of Renaissance Europe.
Thomas Tallis’s magnificent
Spem in alium concludes the programme preceded by its plainchant version. Tallis’s work is described in the booklet notes as ‘simultaneously a tribute to Striggio and a determined effort to upstage him’. This recording is the first to use Hugh Keyte’s new edition of the work, and the forty vocal parts are simultaneously divided between accompanying viols, sackbuts, cornets and dulcians. Opinion may diverge as to whether this approach is an improvement, buy it certainly seems to be a valid interpretation, and fits in well with the sonic palette of the rest of the recording. We are more used to hearing this with the weight and impact of the voices as a unified whole, and the instruments in a way serve to diffuse this effect, providing different textures and highlighting some lines where they would otherwise have blended as part of an all-vocal homogeny. There is no shortage of voice-only
Spem in alium recordings however, and with this entire release aimed at shifting our entire outlook on these period masterpieces I’m happy to have encountered this version, and though it doesn’t quite have the tear-jerking effect of the best a-cappella versions Tallis’s scrunchy dissonances and breathtaking harmonic progressions do sound wonderful, and provide a fitting conclusion to the programme.
The extra DVD not only offers a neat little documentary on this production, but also has 5.1 surround sound mixes of the performances of all of the 40-part pieces, the effect of which results in your feeling as if you are sitting at the centre of all of the choirs and instruments. On a good system the effect of this can be quite overwhelming, the shifting movement of vast sounds crossing your auditory horizon like the shadows of clouds moving across a beautiful, gently undulating landscape.
All in all this is an adventurous and truly magnificent release, and one which no lover of good choral music should be without.
-- Dominy Clements, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Missa "Ecco sì beato giorno" by Alessandro Striggio
Ecce beatam lucem by Alessandro Striggio
Written: 16th Century; Italy
Spem in alium by Thomas Tallis
Written: after 1559; England
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