Striggio in 60 Parts

Motet – Ecce beatam lucem
Motet and Magnificat – Aurora lucis rutilat
Spem in alium
Mass – Ecco si beato giorno (in 40 and 60 parts) [First performance in modern times]

BBC Singers
The Tallis Scholars
His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts
Peter Phillips
Davitt Moroney [Striggio Mass]

Reviewed by: Edward Clark

Reviewed: 17 July, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

For a late-night Prom this was deeply impressive. The size of the audience, that is: about double the number who attended the earlier Prom. Surely, in statistics alone, this was another Proms first!

And so to the reason for such a large gathering of music-lovers. We heard three Renaissance masters, two of them famous, Tallis and Lassus, the third comparatively unknown, Alessandro Striggio.

Striggio visited England in 1567 and Tallis heard his music, some of it in 40 (and perhaps 60) parts, thus giving rise to a challenge to the English composer by a senior courtier to match the intricacy of the Italian. Which Tallis did with his 40-part motet, “Spem in alium”, an unmatched masterpiece which many people today, with much justification, regard as the greatest musical work by an Englishman.

The connection with Lassus was that he directed Striggio’s music and they would, no doubt, have become friends on their various travels around Europe.

So the scene was set to compare the young Italian’s contrapuntal mastery against the mature skills of the most prestigious English composer of his time. Two mighty 40-part motets (both under 10 minutes), plus Striggio’s much bigger and more ambitious “Mass”, its latter stages needing a 60-part choir!

But what did Tallis actually hear when Striggio visited London? For the Prom both works by him had an elaborate accompaniment of instruments, justified by their mention in the manuscripts, and in the knowledge that Striggio’s employer, the Medici family, could afford such extravagance. For London it is surely much more likely that one or both of Striggio’s works would have been sung unadorned by instruments due to the lack of their availability in the English court. A true comparison between Striggio’s motet and Tallis’s “Spem in alium” was thus denied the audience.

The effect of the instrumentation on the Striggio motet was to obscure some of the choral lines through various doublings and the sheer weight of sound coming from the brass instruments. This was less of a problem in the half-hour-long Mass due to its more sharply defined sections and, indeed, in the climactic moment where all 60 voices are used unaccompanied.

Despite this reservation this was a stimulating and beautifully sung concert. Apart from the never-ending discussion about the correct ‘sex’ of the choir (only male voices would have been used, at least in 16th-century England), there was huge pleasure to be gained from the refulgent sounds.

Peter Phillips, with his augmented choirs, exceeded himself in “Spem in alium”, with a magisterial performance of sublime consequence. The choral lines unfolded with a seeming simplicity that hid the complexities in the writing. He had opened the concert with Striggio in full cry, the motet, “Ecce beatam lucem” – a splendid if less complex use of 40 voices.

Phillips also conducted the Lassus in wonderful style, the Royal Albert Hall perfect for this glorious Italianate, florid writing that contains many prophetic touches.

Then came Striggio’s “Mass” conducted by Davitt Moroney, who was giving it the first performance in modern times and whose diligence for and acquaintance of performing style produced a wonderful view of this stunning work, which gradually expands to the 60-choir parts. Unique? Very possibly. Glorious? Certainly. But the whole Prom was a triumph for expert musicianship and craftsmanship of the highest order.

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