From the shared conducting of Christopher Monks and Geoffrey Webber, here are choral blockbusters from the Renaissance.
There’s logic to placing Alessandro Striggio’s forty-part Mass with Thomas Tallis’s similarly scored Spem in alium; less obvious is the inclusion of four settings by Hildegard of Bingen, which receive not even a mention in the booklet note. A pleasant diversion or intended to demonstrate what she could accomplish with a single melodic line?
Nevertheless, Hildegard’s beautifully flowing lines are reward in themselves and are given nicely paced accounts. Fast-forward to 1561 for Striggio’s lavish forty-parter, five choirs of eight voices conveying a radiant, ecstatic text. If not the most incisive start, the performance of the interlocking textures and expansive luminosity quickly gains assurance. The singers’ commitment is palpable, heard in dancing syncopations and a general, almost breathless, enthusiasm for the “eternal nourishment” of the afterlife.
Tallis supposedly heard the Striggio in London which became the inspiration for his masterpiece, Spem in alium, and this version of it is gripped by raw determination, demanding rather than expansively requesting forgiveness for “the sins of man”. At times unrelenting, there’s no loss of detail, and a sweeping panorama is fitfully glimpsed.
A similarly forthright approach inhabits Striggio’s Missa sopra Ecco Sì Beato Giorno of 1566. It unfolds spaciously in the opening and closing movements but the unforgiving tempos in the ‘Gloria’ and ‘Credo’ provoke a fevered response to the ornate counterpoint. While I have every regard for the stamina and vocal acrobatics, there’s a sense of everyone hanging on for dear life. Even passages of quiet reflection never quite relax or feel loved. A glowing ‘Agnus dei’ soothes the senses but the polyphonic glories overall feel under stress, Baroque splendour only partially revealed.