Renaissance Extravagance in Magnificent Setting from I Fagiolini and Others

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Striggio, Tallis, G.Gabrieli: York Early Music Festival, I Fagiolini,The English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble, Rose Consort of Viols, Fretwork, The City Musick, University of York Chamber Choir, Robert Hollingworth(conductor), The Minster, York. 12.7.2012 (JL)

Striggio Ecce beatam lucem
Striggio Mass in 40 parts: Kyrie/Gloria/Sanctus & Benedictus/Agnus II (a 60)
Tallis Spem in alium
G.Gabrieli Magnificat a 20.28 con il sicut locutus

I was in Venice recently and although I managed a visit to La Fenice Opera House (Mozart), my main musical ambition would have been to hear the music of Giovanni Gabrieli, who was organist at the St Mark’s Basilica, at source. His sacred music for choir and instruments was well known to me from recordings and was noted for the way the composer divided his groups on either side of the church to create antiphonal effects that exploited the space. Unfortunately there was nothing doing when I was there so this concert at York Minster (see was perhaps the next best thing and was my main reason for attending. More of that later.

The most notable thing about the concert was the juxtaposition of two great C16th sacred choral works for 40 parts, displays of outrageous compositional virtuosity. Striggio’s 40 part motet Ecco Beatam lucem seems to have been a dry run for his big mass (that runs to 60 parts at one point). He took performances of the mass to several cities outside his native Italy and around about 1570 came to London where almost certainly Thomas Tallis heard it. Nobody is absolutely sure why Tallis then wrote his famous 40 part Spem in alium. Many assume that he wanted to show that an Englishman could match or outdo Striggio at his own game in a case of unseemly sacred music wars. I instinctively believe this to be the case. Those who know the work will do so from performances for unaccompanied voices reflecting a long tradition. Robert Hollingworth of I Fagiolini, like many a music scholar, has indulged some informed guess work and chosen to perform these works with added instruments. Exactly which instruments to use is a matter of guess work also but here we had contemporary instruments such as viols, sackbuts (trombone forerunner), cornetts (a sort of wooden trumpet), shawms ( a kind of loud oboe) recorders, organ and various plucked strings. To realise the vision, I Fagiolini was greatly reinforced by a several groups, mostly local (York in general and the University in particular have a tradition in early music performance).

I Fagiolini – an English group in spite of its name founded by Hollingworth at Oxford in the eighties – recorded the Striggio mass, the parts of which were only recently rediscovered, just over 6 months ago and the resulting CD has been a great success, selling well and winning awards. The Striggio/ Tallis programme has been touring in England (see review ) and this York performance was the culmination with a final late night spectacular involving a light show. I attended an earlier performance without the special effects.

A feature was to encourage the audience to perambulate around the building while the music was playing. Seats were provided in the middle of the nave where the players were situated but the aisles and transepts were clear for people to wander. This made sense because in a church this size (and few are larger) the sound varies enormously depending on the listening point. It can range from a clear but unbalanced hearing of a few of the performers to a spacious blend in which individual parts are difficult distinguish. When the music started I retired to one of the transepts which was almost empty, and savoured the full blended sound while gazing at the enormously high pillars that support the central tower. The whole cathedral space was filled with a surprising volume of sound (the use of brass and wind certainly adding to the effect) that matched the magnificence of the sacred interior. Is this the effect that Striggio and Tallis intended, or did they expect you to be more aware of their extravagently composed 40 parts?

If Tallis composed Spem in alium in response to Striggio’s mass, then in some ways he did outdo it. It is more eclectic in style with more complex polyphony that in turn generates dissonances and rich harmonies not present in the mass, and hearing instruments added for the first time was, for me, convincing. Holligworth conducted his forces on a platform with performers surrounding him in a circle and he was adept in controlling contrasts in volume that were particularly effective in the Tallis.

As for the Gabrieli Magnificat that ended the concert and for which I had made my pilgrimage, I confess to some disappointment. This is not to criticise the playing or conducting, but the layout. I had always understood that Gabrieli would have divided his forces on either side of St Mark’s to produce a kind of recognisable stereophony. There were two things that acted against realizing this effect. First, Hollingworth still kept his players tightly around him in the middle of the nave, and second, the sheer size of the Minster – very much bigger than St Mark’s – resulted in a single blend of sound from most vantage points. The only time we had spatial sonics was when two trumpets blasted out from a gallery half way up the great west wall. This was towards the end of the piece where Gabrielli alludes to the Italian musical style of the battaglia, functionally used to celebrate victorious battles, employing fanfares and even special effects. At this point the Minster was invaded with the sound of gunfire through loudspeakers. As someone said to me afterwards, “ I thought we’d launched into 1812”. A memorable evening.

John Leeman