Thursday, 16 February 2012

Striggio’s missing manuscript

I was lucky enough to have been at the Malvern Theatres last Friday to hear the Armonico Consort perform works by Striggio, Tallis, Brumel and Ockegham. This wasn’t just another early choral music concert but a real event including Tallis’ great 40 part motet Spem in Alium as well as Striggio’s 40 part motet Ecce Beatam Lucem.

I did wonder if our seats just two rows back from conductor, Christopher Monks, would be too close but in the event it was perfect and allowed me to hear the polyphonic effects to the full.

There are many specialist early music choirs around nowadays but the Armonico Consort brought, not only technical purity, but also warmth and humanity which is often lacking with some choirs. What also stood out was the quality of the basses in this music that often overlooks that department in favour of the higher voices. Their superb control of dynamics was shown particularly in Byrd’s Ave Verum, where there were quiet passages of rapt spiritual concentration.

I didn’t think that splitting up Brumel’s Missa Et Ecce Terae Motus (or as it is often known ‘Earthquake Mass’) across the concert would work but it did triumphantly and the planning of this concert proved to be ideal. The first part of the concert ended with Striggio’s Ecce Beatam Lucem performed in the round as was Tallis’ Spem in Alium at the end of the concert.  This masterpiece of Tudor polyphony was spellbinding with the theatre acoustic bringing out much more detail than any church acoustic would.

I have no less than seven recordings of the Tallis, in Latin, in English, unaccompanied and with instrumentalists. (Try the Oxford Camerata on Naxos or the Tallis Scholars on Gimell ). Whilst a live performance is always a more thrilling experience, this performance was up there with the best.

For an encore? Amazingly it was a repeat of Spem in Alium. What more could one want. It is only February but this is likely to be the most memorable concert of my year.

Sadly little of the music performed that evening is available on the the Armonico Consort’s CD’s so I will have to direct others to alternatives. However, they will be performing other repertoire in March and April 2012

Alessandro Striggio (c1536-1592) is believed to have written his 40 part motet, Ecce Beatam Lucem, sometime before 1561. By 1566 he had written his 40 part Mass Ecco si beato giorno which was said to have inspired Tallis to write his 40 part motet Spem in Alium.

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Last year Decca issued I Fagiolini’s recording of the two Striggio 40 part works and what a revelation they have proved to be. So why did it take until recently to record Striggio’s mass?

Well the Mass was lost for over 400 years until discovered in the Biblioteque Nationale in Paris by a UC Berkeley professor none other than the brilliant harpsichordist, organist and musicologist Davitt Moroney.

It is the largest known contrapuntal choral work in Western music and was apparently a gift from the Medicis to the Holy Roman Emperor in an attempt to persuade him to grant the title of Grand Duke of Tuscany. Striggio was sent by the Medicis with the manuscript to see the Holy Roman Emperor.

The performances are first rate and the sound produced is wonderful. Included on the CD in addition to other smaller works by Striggio and a short piece by Vincenzo Galilei, father of the famous astronomer, is Tallis’ 40 part motet Spem in Alium. This performance is unusual in that there is an instrumental accompaniment in continuo form. Again the performance is wonderful, with the instrumental contribution bringing an interesting sound to the music.

It was once thought that Tallis wrote the work for the 40th birthday of Elizabeth 1 but more recently it has been considered to have been written for the recusant Earl of Arundel for performance at Nonsuch Palace which had an octagonal banqueting hall. Sadly Nonsuch Palace no longer stands as by 1690 it had been completely dismantled by Charles II’s mistress, who sold its raw materials to pay off her gambling debts. For more about the palace see  

This issue also comes with an hour long DVD about the recording of the Striggio Mass and with surround sound tracks of Striggio’s Motet and Mass as well as Tallis’ motet.

I certainly urge any lover of early music or, indeed, choral music to investigate this terrific disc.

In my next blog I will be moving from unfinished works and lost works to a lost reputation, that of Saint Saens.

See also:

Venetian Vespers

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