This two disc set, CD and DVD, represents the pinnacle of study and performance of Early Music. Everything is done to the highest standard, and the recording will surely provide for many years to come a tremendous asset for all with ears for instrumental and choral work from the late Renaissance period. All credit to Decca too for making it available to us.
The 16th century Italian musician Alessandro Striggio has not hitherto been widely known outside the Madrigal and Early Music fields. Thanks to new settings by Robert Hollingworth and Hugh Keyte of some of his choral work, and this recording, that may now change. Certainly, his role in setting the pattern for and inspiring Tallis's 40 part masterwork, Spem in alium, must now be acknowledged.
It seems that Striggio's own 40 part motet, Ecce beatem lucem (track 1 on both these discs) was written in about 1561. By 1566, he had adapted and extended its music and form for his mass, Ecco si beato giorno. That work, believed lost, was recovered in 2007 and now also features, in full, on this recording. It incorporates two Agnes dei settings and the second of those, concluding the mass, is even more remarkable in that, reflecting the practice of Italian madrigal publications of the time of increasing the number of voices from four to six for the last item, it has 60 separate parts.
In 1567, Striggio made a two-week visit to London, taking his musical scores with him and at least one of his 40 part works was performed. Tallis fairly certainly heard the performance - may even have participated in it - and by about 1570 had written his Spem in alium. Hollingworth and Keyte write that for Tallis Spem in alium was "simultaneously a tribute to Striggio and a determined effort to upstage him."
Most would judge that in the latter effort Tallis was wholly successful. But on the 13 minute video included on disc 2 Robert Hollingworth warns against that. Like coffee and tea, he says, Striggio and Spem in alium are different drinks. That insight was also helpful to me in forming an opinion on the allocation on the Tallis Spem in alium on these discs of a substantial number of parts to instruments rather than voices. My long-cherished David Willcocks/Kings College Choir/Cambridge University Musical Society recording of Spem in alium (dating from about 1965, but still available Tallis: Spem in Alium; Lamentations of Jeremiah; Church Music) is a cappella. Which is better? The answer has to be, they are different drinks.
The DVD disk offers all the 40 part (and the 60 part) pieces again, this time in surround sound. On the CD only are seven madrigals, also by Striggio, one arranged for instruments only, and a Contrapunto by Galilei. None could be described as 'fillers', for all make splendid listening, and are absolutely in context. And the Tallis Spem in alium is most aptly 'introduced' by the same text sung in Sarum plainchant. All in all, and with the hugely informative 32 page booklet as well, an absolute treasure trove.