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Briefly Noted: Super-Polyphony by Striggio

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A. Striggio, Missa Ecco si beato giorno (inter alia), Le Concert Spirituel, H. Niquet

(released on February 6, 2012)
Glossa GCDSA921623 | 64'20"
As with so many art forms in the Baroque era, composers took the Renaissance Venetian practice of divided choirs and exploded it into something grandiose. Composers in Rome like Vincenzo Ugolini and Luca Marenzio led this trend in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, but it was imitated in other places. Hervé Niquet's recording of several such works, all from Florence and probably intended for the vast space under Brunelleschi's Duomo dome in the city's cathedral, is anchored on one of the most extravagant, Missa Ecco si beato giorno -- a Mass for forty voices, in five choirs of eight voices each, expanded to sixty voices in the Agnus dei -- by Alessandro Striggio. It has to be said that the effect of such pieces can really be appreciated only when performed live in a vast space. Recording does not quite cut it, although perhaps now with surround sound the effect can be approximated in recording. (The most famous example of such super-polyphony, Thomas Tallis's 40-part motet Spem in alium, was featured in recorded form recently in a sound installation by Janet Cardiff.)

Striggio's Mass, by its title, seems to be related to his own 40-voice motet, Ecce beatam lucem (also recorded here). The motet sets a rather strange, new Latin sort of text, not proper to any feast day as far as I can tell, a sort of evocation of the light and glory of Paradise. As is usually the case with this sort of super-polyphony, the music would hardly be memorable if reduced from its massive, layered textures. Using an edition made by countertenor Dominique Visse (heard as one of the singers in Choir III) in the 1970s, Niquet leaves Choirs I and V to be performed exclusively by voices, doubling Choirs II and III with instruments (two organs and a consort of winds, respectively). Finally, Choir IV and the basso continuo part are performed exclusively by instruments, making for a massive texture that helps relieve some of the work's monotony. (Robert Hollingworth did something similar, but with the added benefit of brass, for his recording of this Mass by I Fagiolini, released by Decca in 2011 -- listen on YouTube -- with generally finer sonic results, not least because the tempo is not allowed to drag.) The program is rounded out by other motets in the super-polyphonic style, composed by Orazio Benevoli (1605-1672, a former choirboy and eventually maestro di cappella at San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome), plus ornamented versions of the proper chants for the feast of St. John the Baptist by Francesco Corteccia (1502-1571), relics of a rather unusual practice of setting chant. By way of introduction, the Beata viscera chant is recorded in a semi-rhythmicized way, with an instrumental drone (much more interesting than the drab Agnus dei substituted for the second statement of that text in the Mass).


Anonymous said...

Excellent review, as always. But a minor correction: it makes no sense to write 'probably intended for the vast space under Brunelleschi's Duomo in the city's cathedral', because 'duomo' and 'cathedral' are synoymous. 'Dome' or 'cupola' would be the right word.

Charles T. Downey said...

Right you are. Thanks for the correction!