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Supersize Polyphony
Allessandro STRIGGIO (1536/7-1592)
Ecce Beatem Lucem 40 (1561) [6:54]
Missa sopra Ecco S Beato Giorno [27:19]
HILDEGARD VON BINGEN (1098-1179)
Four Motets [14:30]
Thomas TALLIS (1505-1585)
O Nata Lux (1575) [1:50]
Spem in Alium (c 1570) [8:37]
Plainchant
Spem in Alium [2:27]
Adrian Franks (bass sackbut)
Armonico Consort/Christopher Monks
Choir of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge/Geoffrey Webber
rec. 2018, St George’s Church, Cambridge
Texts and translations included
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD560 [61:37]

This isn’t the first time that these monumental works have been coupled on disc; the remarkable Decca recording by I Fagiolini and the indefatigable Robert Hollingworth (review) was the trailblazer in this regard. It included one of the finest accounts of the Tallis I have heard, accompanied by instruments, which was paired with equally outstanding performances of the Striggio motet and mass. Soon afterwards wonderful rival versions of the Striggio works emerged, atmospherically rendered by Herv Niquet’s flexible choral and instrumental ensemble Le Concert Spirituel, and superbly recorded by Glossa (GCDSA 921623).

Quite apart from the logistics of recording this ornately complex repertoire, choirs and their directors face a further challenge in identifying apt couplings to complete a cogent programme. Those behind this collaboration between the Armonico Consort and the Choir of Gonville and Caius College have taken an adventurous approach some may find controversial: four of Hildegard’s ethereal motets have been interpolated among the ‘Supersize’ content, presumably to provide contrast, or possibly a space for the listener in which to reflect. Live concert performances of this programme were apparently very well received, unsurprisingly given the considerable sonic potential of this repertoire. Of course live performances also promise a fascinating (and rare) visual spectacle which is something to which my fellow reviewer Simon Thompson alludes in his detailed and erudite review of the present disc. But the live environment is very different from one’s living room and I rather suspect that some of those listeners who, like me, have lived with (and loved) the discs mentioned above for a number of years may be a tad underwhelmed by the new issue. Ultimately this will boil down to personal taste.

I find the ‘bells and whistles’ approach of both Hollingworth and Niquet both intellectually convincing and aesthetically satisfying. On the new disc, instrumentation is reduced to a sole bass sackbut (played by Adrian France) which provides some timbral differentiation (and perhaps some signposting for the singers) in the different sections of Striggio’s Ecce Beatem Lucem motet and mass. While my sound system is far from top-of-the-range it’s pretty trustworthy and I’m afraid that the sound of the sackbut barely registered. In the motet and the first three sections of the mass Striggio derived from it the huge blocks of choral sound seem rather cluttered. It is actually difficult to pinpoint the problem, especially since the Sanctus and Benedictus (in which admittedly the music presents a softer focus) seem to be more cleanly projected, but contrary to expectations given its scale this is also true of the 60 part Agnus Dei. One might further speculate about the challenges such polychoral epics present to engineers, or about the acoustics of St George’s Church in Cambridge, but the massed voices in these earlier sections coalesce in a rather glutinous fashion. The use of vibrato in the Kyrie and Gloria seems excessive – given the complexity of the music and the scale of the forces one might be forgiven for wondering whether this particular blend of voices might be responsible for the problems. While matters improve in the second half of the mass I regret to say that on the whole this reading failed to move me in the same way as the rival recordings mentioned above. Perhaps the live performances would have impacted differently.

The congested sound also compromised my enjoyment of Tallis’s immortal Spem in Alium. Arguably the greater familiarity of this music makes it yet more difficult to record. Its linear nature contrasts greatly with Striggio’s great pillars of sound and presents a different series of obstacles for the engineers. While I love Hollingworth’s recording, the instrumental accompaniment renders it unique and it’s perhaps not appropriate to use it for purposes of comparison, but Tallis’s flowing individual strands still manage to emerge with unerring clarity, while the voices (and instruments) blend to superb effect. However, thirty- odd years after its first appearance for me it’s still the Tallis Scholars’ Gimell recording (CDGIM 203 - review) which remains peerless, in terms of balance, blend and above all breadth. Peter Phillips takes his time with the piece and truly allows the music to breathe. The Monks/Webber account may be solid; Phillips’ is literally breathtaking.

While the three different solo voices used in the Hildegard motets are unquestionably lovely, I’m not remotely convinced of the appropriacy of these pieces in this context. Each piece communicates (rather paradoxically) both ascetic and ecstatic power, as well as profound humility; for me they don’t really sit comfortably with their architecturally magnificent couplings. Their inclusion might thus imply a ‘palate-cleansing’ role which arguably diminishes them. Consequently I found these readings to be rather workaday and tokenistic rather than profound.

I have heard many of both Christopher Monks’ and Geoffrey Webber’s discs with their respected groups over the years and given that Signum Classics can be relied upon for excellent sound, I was perhaps expecting too much here. Any attempt to record this ‘Supersize’ repertoire must be considered enterprising by default, but the challenges presented by Striggio and Tallis in these works are substantial enough without the inherent problem of seamlessly blending two very different choral groups. But whatever are the perceived shortcomings of this issue my critique can only ever be a personal response; many other commentators, including my aforementioned colleague have responded far more positively to this disc.

Richard Hanlon
 
Previous review: Simon Thompson



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