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Striggio and Tallis: Music in 40 parts

posted 31 Mar 2012, 05:26 by Thomas Friberg
Original review found at The West of the concert described here.

William Yeoman for The West Australian, 29 February 2012

They say air travel and the internet have banished that tyrant Distance to, well, somewhere in the distance. But you know you're living in one of the most isolated cities in the world when, in an historically-informed concert of Renaissance vocal music, violins, violas, cellos, trombones, bassoons and oboes replace the viols, lutes, sackbuts, dulcians and shawms common in that period.

To be fair, performers have always used whatever instruments were to hand. And, although it's always been traditional in some regions to add instrumental accompaniments to a cappella vocal works, Alessandro Striggio's spectacular 40-part Missa Ecco si beato giorno and Thomas Tallis' better-known 40-part Motet, Spem in Alium are scored for unaccompanied voices.

And certainly, I'd rather have heard these two gigantic masterpieces of Renaissance polyphony accompanied by modern instruments than not at all.

But in this otherwise superb performance by UK-based vocal group I Fagiolini and The St George's Cathedral Consort Choir and Orchestra, all under the direction of I Fagiolini's Robert Hollingworth, I did miss the extra colour afforded by the historical instruments you can hear on I Fagiolini's CD recording — though we did have a wooden, leather-covered cornetto, played with great panache by Gawain Glenton.

OK, enough complaining. This was a concert to delight the eye as well as the ear, with the musicians separated out into small choirs and mixed consorts — the Striggio needs five eight-part choirs, the Tallis four 10-part choirs — in an arc across the stage. Two chamber organs and a harpsichord served to add further colour.

The unaccompanied works for double-choir by Willaert, Lassus, Victoria and Gibbons provided pleasing palate-cleansers between courses. All were conducted with vigour and precision by Hollingworth; all were sung with great energy and clarity.

The different movements of Striggio's 40-part Mass, which was originally requested by his employer Duke Cosimo I de' Medici as a gift for the Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian II in Vienna, go from the intricate to the streamlined and the delicate to the grand. Whether in the breathtaking Gloria and Credo, the transparent Sanctus or the impressive Agnus Dei with its 60-part finale, singers and instrumentalists brought out the shifting hierarchies of sound with rare skill and often sublime expression.

Tallis' Spem in alium was equally satisfying — as was I Fagiolini's hilariously choreographed encore, The Ringing at Speyer.Perhaps the Perth Concert Hall lacks the requisite atmosphere for the performance of sacred choral music such as this. But I didn't hear anybody in the near-capacity audience grumbling. It was all smiles.
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