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Supersize Polyphony
Allessandro STRIGGIO (1536/7-1592)
Ecce Beatem Luceum 40 [6:54]
Missa sopra Ecco S Beato Giorno [27:19]
Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179)
Motets [14:30]
Thomas TALLIS (1505-1585)
Spem in alium [8:37]
Armonico Consort/Christopher Monks
Choir of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge/Geoffrey Webber
rec. 2018, St George’s Church, Cambridge

Only once have I ever encountered Tallis’ Spem in Alium live in the flesh. That was in the chapterhouse of Durham Cathedral, and it struck me then that seeing the piece is an immeasurable aid to hearing how its intricacies work in sound. The conductor that evening placed its eight choirs of five in a line around the semicircular apse, and it was surprisingly instructive watching each singer enter the music one at a time from left to right. That was when I first understood how Tallis’ extraordinary polyphonic genius works, with clean translucence and unstoppable logic, and that’s a thought that came back to me again and again as I listened to this disc, which cleverly combines Spem with the 40-part mass that (probably) inspired it.

If, like most of us, you’re more familiar with the Tallis than the Striggio, then you may well find the opening of this disc something of a shock. Striggio’s motet, Ecce Beatem Lucem, is a distant sound world away from Tallis. If Tallis is full of smooth lines and endlessly curving vocalism, then Ecce Beatem Lucem relies more on blocks of sound bouncing off one another, with the reverberations enhancing the drama. The same is true for the mass. Both of them are very much in the polychoral Venetian mould, something underlined further by the (discrete but important) work of Adrian France on the bass sackbut. There’s a more technical reason for the difference, too: Spem is written for eight choirs of five, while the Missa sopra Ecco S Beato Giorno is written for five choirs of eight. That’s partly to fit more with the Venetian style, with different choirs singing from the diverse galleries of St Mark’s basilica. It does make a difference, though, and drawing out that diversity is one of this disc’s strengths. Not all 40-part music is created equal.

The mass is cut from the same choral cloth as the motet, with a bell-like clarity in the way that the music progresses. We’re a long way from the world of melody, of course, so the music is driven forward by the power of the textual meaning, with excited reverberations in the Kyrie and Gloria. The conductors (it’s never made entirely clear whether Monks of Webber is in ultimate charge of the ensemble) do a lovely job of shading the superstructure, with a lovely swell on phrases like “et homo factus est” and “resurrectionem mortuorum” in the Credo. The Agnus Dei is particularly lovely, a gorgeous way to end the mass, almost like a lullaby in places.

It’s dramatic and exciting, if ever so slightly wearing. Call me a Philistine, but my ear felt rather exhausted after a whole work of 40 parts, rising to 60 in the Agnus Dei! That’s where the selections from Hildegard of Bingen prove to be so valuable. After the choral supernova from Striggio, Hildegard’s motets are beauteous models of simplicity, with a (stupendously crystalline) solo soprano sailing high in endless melismas over an unchanging chord sustained by the rest of the singers. No justification for this programming choice is proposed in the booklet notes but, as you can see from the tracklist below, the motets are presented interspersed between the different movements of the mass, and I really enjoyed that. It’s like an aperitif; a palate cleanser between the main courses of the mass. Who cares if it’s not exactly in the 40-part spirit? And anyway, if it really bothers you then you can programme your CD or playlist to play the mass movements together.

Spem ends the disc on a high, giving us a lucid, stupendously beautiful performance that sounds great in the acoustic of St George’s Church. Those wandering lines are corralled within the most gorgeous textural structure, and I loved the cleanliness of the sound which positively glows in places.

When ensembles combine, the results aren’t always harmonious, but the Caius Choir and the Armonico Consort sound as though they are singing from the same hymn sheet in every conceivable way. The direction is clear and the results are exciting. Furthermore, the recorded balance is very good, allowing the different lines to sound as clean and distinct as it’s possible to do for 40 parts in two-channel stereo. Excellent as the performance is, it’s the structure of the programme that really makes this disc win as something to take in at one sitting. Full texts and translations are included in the notes. This is worthy to put alongside I Fagiolini, a disc that’s every bit as likeable and enjoyable on its own terms.

Simon Thompson

1. Ecce Beatam Lucem 40 Alessandro Striggio
2. Missa sopra Ecco S Beato Giorno: Kyrie Alessandro Striggio
3. Ave Generosa Hildegard von Bingen
4. Missa sopra Ecco S Beato Giorno: Gloria Alessandro Striggio
5. O Virtus Sapientiae Hildegard von Bingen
6. Missa sopra Ecco S Beato Giorno: Credo Alessandro Striggio
7. O Vos felices radices Hildegard von Bingen
8. Missa sopra Ecco S Beato Giorno: Sanctus Alessandro Striggio
9. Missa sopra Ecco S Beato Giorno: Benedictus Alessandro Striggio
10. Spiritus Sanctus Vivicans Hildegard von Bingen
11. Missa sopra Ecco S Beato Giorno: Agnus Dei Alessandro Striggio
12. O Nata Lux Thomas Tallis
13. Spem in Alium Plainchant Thomas Tallis
14. Spem in Alium Thomas Tallis

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