Alessandro Striggio was born in about 1536 in Mantua; working on diplomatic as well as musical tasks for the Medici families in Florence, he wrote madrigals as well as sacred music and "occasional" pieces for noble weddings and entertainments. His son of the same name eventually provided Monteverdi with the libretto for his Orfeo. This double-disc (CD and DVD) from I Fagiolini with their exuberant director, Robert Hollingworth, celebrates a truly remarkable event in Renaissance polyphony: the sumptuous 40-part mass, "Ecco sì beato giorno", which was recently rediscovered, and first performed again in modern times to great acclaim at the BBC Promenade concerts in 2007.
Because of its near "cult" status and suggested probable source for Tallis' Spem in alium, which is also included on the CD, as well as current popularity in the classical music charts, there was a worry that the sometime populist approach of Hollingworth (this CD also celebrates the 25th anniversary of I Fagiolini) could have compromised the music's performance and emphasized the spectacular at the expense of the substantial. This is not the case. Here is a recording – the world première and only one – to treasure for its delicacy as much as its faithfulness to a high-powered mass. The singing and playing are convincing, technically brilliant and full of feeling and persuasion; but never at the expense of true musicality.
Not that spectacle would be entirely out of place. It's known that Striggio composed an extravagant "song for 40 voices" which was performed in April 1561 as two papal envoys passed through Florence on their way to Paris in order to make a vital intervention at the Colloquy de Poissy in the interests of furthering the stalled Council of Trent. It's also known that the performance in their honor featured elaborate stagecraft and (visual) effects. Nowhere is the title of the work (performed again seven years later at wedding celebrations in Munich) stated, but it's now believed that it was indeed the motet, Ecce beatam lucem, on which the mass (composed by 1566) is based and from which it draws much of its material. The latter occupies tracks 2 to 8, the former track 1 on the CD. I Fagiolini have a website whose notes page goes into greater detail on the relationship between the two works. It even contains updates based on facts and (quite valid) speculation that are still being made; and may well continue to be made as interest in the project and the work continue.
This recording on Decca uses the edition that was made by Hollingworth and Brian Clark and recently published by the Early Music Company. In that it reflects well what is known about the musical practices against which both the motet and the Mass were written this is a good thing. Whereas the Mass, for instance, simply divides the 40 parts into five choirs of eight parts, the motet constantly varies the apportioning of parts. In both cases, as will be obvious to those who are familiar with the Tallis motet, florid and syncopated writing decorates the more static melodic lines. This, and the tonality of the two, provides the link to Tallis as well. Where the difference is felt the most is in the practice adopted by Hollingworth of assigning different families of instruments to each choir in order to emphasize the music's antiphonal qualities. This actually works well. It never overplays the dramatic effect. Acoustically, the surround sound of the accompanying DVD enhances this impact. Though – again – there is little or no attempt (on Hollingworth's part and that of his collaborators) to create a "show" for the sake of it.
In addition to the motet and Mass, the CD contains the plainchant, Spem in alium, which Tallis will have known although did not use – as well as his own version. They're both performed in the same vein. Musical substance does not take second place to sound. Indeed, the addition of instruments to the Tallis motet (see below) actually results in a calmer, cooler, sound. Additionally, there are half a dozen or so madrigals by Striggio; these serve to illustrate something of the composer's acuity with smaller-scale forms. He was a virtuoso on a variety of stringed instruments, particularly the lirone, on which apparently Striggio could play four contrapuntal parts at once! The selection here reflects the various occasions for which they were composed, including the emerging operatic intermedi. The Contrapunto Secondo di B.M. provides a striking instrumental contrast by Vincenzo Galilei, father of the astronomer.
In addition to the DVD, which includes short documentaries about the making of the recordings as well as 5.1 versions of the large works, it is to be noted, then, that the edition of the Tallis version used on the CD is the first recording to use Hugh Keyte's radical new version with instruments. There are so many existing recordings of the work that there is surely room for one which breaks new (or is it old?) ground and may raise eyebrows.
The presentation of this pair, with DVD and CD nicely and safely packaged together in one case, is reflected in the well-written and detailed booklet with photographs, essay, the texts in Latin and English translation as well as full performing personnel. A whole page is devoted to naming and thanking those involved in such a huge project; and almost another to the recording/engineering arrangements etc. That's illuminating in itself; it's also gratifying that such music is given the exposure that Hollingworth has done here, and so successfully. This CD is more than, indeed, it's not at all, a curiosity. Striggio's star ought to be rising as a result. There are too few current recordings available for a composer of this stature. Hats off to Decca, I Fagiolini and Hollingworth and his supporters for making the music so immediate. As said, the singing and playing are first rate. The musicians have got to the very heart of the idioms in which Striggio, Tallis and indeed, Galilei wrote. There's a freshness; an attention to detail; a pacing and an awareness of structure that make these very satisfying yet stimulating accounts. Recommended.
Copyright © 2011, Mark Sealey.