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Striggio: Mass for 40 and 60 voices - Niquet

Striggio: Mass for 40 and 60 voices - Niquet

Glossa  GCDSA 921623

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Vocal


Alessandro Striggio: Mass for 40 and 60 voices

Le Concert Spirituel
Hervé Niquet

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Review by John Miller - February 10, 2012

Alessandro Striggio (c.1536-1562) was but a footnote in the history of Renaissance polychoral music until 2007, when musicologist Davitt Moroney's official rediscovery of "Alessandro Striggio's Mass in Forty and Sixty Parts" was published. Although Moroney studied the history and detail of its composition, the MS, in fact, had already been found in 1978 by Dominique Visse and was transcribed into modern notation by her. This is the version used by Hervé Niquet, director of Le Concert Spirituel, for the present reconstruction.

In order to demonstrate the importance of this crescendo of Renaissance polyphony for the development of monumental choral styles for the forthcoming nascent Baroque period, Niquet has elected to present the Striggio Mass in the context of a celebration of the feast of St John the Baptist in Florence, a most important date in the Florentine calendar, as the saint was the city's patron. The 'Missa sopra Ecco si beato giorno' has such unusual proportions that it must have been commissioned by the Medici Duke Cosimo I and his court for a very special occasion. Striggio was in the employ of the Florentine Court for many years, providing music for State and other important affairs.

The Mass was given its first modern-day performance in 2007 by the Tallis Scholars and BBC Singers. Then Decca recorded in 2007 a performance by I Fagiolini, coupling the Mass with various motets for differently sized ensembles and including Thomas Tallis’s 40-part Spem in alium, which is thought to have been inspired by Striggio’s precedent. Here, appropriate instruments were added as historical research indicated, and the five eight-voiced choirs and instrumental groups were recorded in a circle about the listener. An accompanying DVD describing the recording process contained a Dolby 5.1 track for the surround version.

Very much in the vein of Paul McCreesh's reconstructions with his Gabrieli choir and instrumental players, Niquet has extensively researched the choral history of Florence's Duomo (Santa Croce del Fiori) and has prepared a very convincing celebratory service of the mid-1500s. Striggo's Mass is integrated into the other liturgical elements (Proper of the Mass) by Orazio Benevoli and Francesco Corteccia, as well as plainchant. This results in a wide range of styles, textures and sonorities which make up a rich tapestry of late Renaissance sacred music.

As a wonderful theatrical gesture, the disc begins with a procession of the musicians and singers singing the plainchant 'Beata viscera' in a vivid multi-voice arrangement as was a custom of the time. A number of other recordings have such a procession for the multichannel listeners, but unfortunately proceeding from the back forwards. This never works properly, because psycho-acoustically the ear cannot correctly locate rear sounds at low levels and at certain frequencies - you have to be told that musician's entrance is from behind. Wisely, Niquet's musicians enter from the front, starting in the distance of the vast acoustic of Notre Dame du Liban in Paris. This works splendidly, and there is quite a frisson as the voices and instruments come close, diverging and surrounding the listener.

Typical mid-Renaissance instruments were arranged in groups sitting with each of the choirs, and include sackbuts, cornetts, dulcians, regal, organ, harpsichord, spinetta ottovina, bass de violon and violone. These either double vocal parts or contribute a figured bass. It may seem unnatural to be sitting at the focus of the circle, with many voices singing at you and instruments playing towards you. Indeed, it does require a certain degree of fortitude for the listener, especially when the great climax of 60 voices arrives in the Agnus dei III. However, as Niquet points out, in Florence's Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiore), the Medicis would seat themselves at the heart of the octagonal marble choir, so there is a precedence. The experience, heard on a well-matched and carefully set up 5.0 channel system, is simply breath-taking, far better than most of the other surround-choir engineering I have heard.

The performances are thoroughly idiomatic, with powerful bass and tenor foundation, and light, non-operatic voices for sopranos and altos (in reality, these voices would be supplied by boys). The motets and Mass have buoyant rhythms and appropriate variations in pace as well as number of voices, so that the palate does not become fatigued before the full 60 voices make their impact. In fact, Striggio begins his Mass with solos, and there are many judicial changes of choral density. Of course it is difficult to hear all the words, even though articulation is clear, because of the voices overlapping, and the glorious reverberance of the church, which takes many seconds to die away after the music stops.

Nicquet and Le Concert Spirituel, together with his producers and engineer, ought to be greatly praised for bringing to fruition such a moving and thrilling capture of a great performance. This must have been the culmination of a long and detailed project, and brings to mind the similar intense preparations which must have attended the original Florentine event. The product is very well-presented, residing in a triple digipak with a detachable booklet featuring informative historical notes in English, German, French and Spanish. Texts are in Latin, English and French, and there are numerous photographs of the musicians and their seating positions. I suspect these must have been taken at rehearsals, as I cannot locate any microphones.

For lovers of Renaissance polychoral music, this well-planned and brilliantly-executed disc is quintessential. Sonically it is first-class, offering a remarkable musical experience of true demonstration quality.

Copyright © 2012 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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