Striggio’s Polychoral Splendour in Tewkesbury Abbey

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Striggio, Tallis et al.: Cheltenham Music Festival, Tewkesbury Abbey, 9.7.2012 (JQ)

Alessandro Striggio: Ecce beatem lucem
Claudio Merulo
: Canzon La Leonora (Venice 1592)
: Missa Ecco si beata giorno – Kyrie, Gloria
Giovanni Bassano
: Divisions on Palestrina’s Introduxit me rex
Thomas Tallis
: Spem in alium
: Missa Ecco si beata giorno – Credo
Lodovico Grossi da Viadana
: O dulcissima Maria
: Missa Ecco si beata giorno – Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei I & II
Giovanni Gabrieli
: Magnificat à 20/28 con il sicut locutus in Ecco (Reconstructed by Hugh Keyte)

I Fagiolini
The Oriel Singers
The English Cornett and Sackbutt Ensemble
The City Musick
The Rose Consort of Viols
Robert Hollingworth (director)

In many ways this was, surely, the flagship event of the 2012 Cheltenham Music Festival. The première recording of Striggio’s 40-part Missa Ecco si beata giorno caused a huge amount of interest in 2011(review), The Mass is so sumptuously scored that opportunities to hear it live are bound to be limited. I Fagiolini are currently touring this programme to several prestigious venues around the UK and at each stop they are working with a crack local choir to expand the number of singers to the required numbers. For this concert they were joined by the excellent Oriel Singers who are based in Cheltenham. So far as I know, the members of the Oriel Singers are amateur singers, albeit of an extremely high standard: they more than held their own in this company.

Sensibly Robert Hollingworth divided the movements of the Mass, as would be the case in a liturgical context. Had he not done so the rich scoring might have been a little indigestible. He described the short pieces by Merulo, Bassano and Viadana as “sorbets to the richer fare in this Renaissance feast.” The first two were instrumental numbers. The Viadana piece was a short but ravishing devotional motet to the Virgin. Here it was exquisitely sung by countertenor Matthew Venner, accompanied by organ and lute.

Tallis’s celebrated 40-part motet is usually heard sung by unaccompanied voices. However, Hollingworth – and other scholars – believe that the tradition of singing it a cappella arose when a contrafactum, to an English text – Sing and Glorify – was performed in 1610 on the occasion of the investiture of Prince Harry, eldest son of King James I. Hollingworth included the vocal/instrumental version in a new edition by Hugh Keyte on the CD of the Striggio Mass, which was the first time I’d heard it in that guise. It was, presumably, the Keyte edition that was used in this concert. It seems to me that there is a compelling logic to the argument that Spem in alium would not have been an a cappella choral piece. It has long been believed that Tallis wrote it as a direct response to the gauntlet thrown down by an English performance of at least part of Striggio’s Mass. Since the Striggio piece involved instruments, is it likely – if the story is true – that Tallis would have composed something less ambitiously scored?  Whilst my loyalty to the a cappella version of Spem remains unshaken, the Keyte edition is mightily persuasive and the music is even grander in this guise. One’s admiration for Tallis’s compositional ingenuity is enhanced by hearing it done this way. Hearing it live for the first time, especially in such a superb performance, was a thrilling experience and by the end the Abbey seemed to be alive with sound. Incidentally, immediately before the Tallis we heard the text sung as a plainchant antiphon by men’s voices from the south transept. This was a tremendously effective ‘appetiser’; it’s just a pity that it was necessary for the singers then to reposition themselves prior to singing the Tallis as this rather reduced the ambience.

Like the Tallis, the Striggio Mass – and the 40-part motet, Ecce beatem lucem – was enormously impressive both as a composition and a performance. There were some especially sonorous moments in the Gloria, not least the richly scored ‘Glorificamus te’, and with Robert Hollingworth directing proceedings with great energy and dynamism, the Gloria was a really joyful celebration. Striggio’s Credo is a tremendously confident affirmation of faith – perhaps reflecting secular Florentine confidence also? ‘Et resurrexit’ was powerful and majestic in this performance while the tremendous conviction that the performers brought to ’Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum’ sparked a thrilling end to the movement. The Mass ends with Agnus Dei I & II. Composers of the time would very often expand the number of parts in the final movement of a work. Thus, for example, a four-part Mass might be expanded to six. No such moderation for Striggio! He scored his Agnus Dei II in an astonishing sixty individual parts! The music is reverential and dignified yet wonderfully sonorous and Robert Hollingworth gave us a welcome immediate opportunity to hear it again.

The evening closed with a reconstruction by Hugh Keyte of a Magnificat by Giovanni Gabrieli, written in 20 parts, expanding into as many as 28 parts. This music, though spectacular, is not always as extravagantly scored as the Striggio Mass and quite often the music is laid out for a choir consisting of a solo voice and a group of instrumentalists. Perhaps the relative restraint of the scoring was the reason why I found it easier to hear the words than was the case in the Striggio or Tallis pieces. Once again the music was delivered with thrilling assurance and great conviction. Towards the end we heard battle fanfares sounded from different points of the compass before the exciting ‘Sicut locutus est’. The exuberant, triple-time doxology then impelled the setting towards a majestic conclusion.

Clearly, the capacity audience was caught up in this most exciting concert and the performers were rewarded with a warm ovation. As he took his final bow I noticed Robert Hollingworth gesturing above and around, paying his own tribute to Tewkesbury Abbey. That was great to see because this magnificent building and its generous acoustics undoubtedly made a significant contribution towards this enthralling and exciting concert. The real hero of the evening, however, was Robert Hollingworth. Even for a conductor of his experience it must be a huge challenge to coordinate so many singers and instrumentalists – nearly 80 in total – spread quite widely around and in such a resonant acoustic. Not only did Hollingworth hold this disparate ensemble together but he did much more than that. Conducting with great energy and clarity, he clearly imparted his vision and enthusiasm for the music to everyone concerned, inspiring some tremendous music making.

This concert was part of a short tour of this programme to some of the finest churches in the UK. The tour has already taken in the Chapel of Kings College, Cambridge and Bath Abbey. There’s one further stop: two performances will be given in York Minster on 12 July. Though not part of the tour itself, I think, the same programme is also being given in St. Augustine’s, Kilburn on 22 September. Further details here: catch it, if you can.


John Quinn