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And it was similarly the shifting groupings of five choirs which kept Striggio's Mass and the opening work, Ecce beatam lucem, alert and engaging throughout. With a lavish continuo group consisting of chamber organ, harpsichord, theorbos, and a harp, as well as a special bass viol, the 'lirone' (Striggio's own instrument, on which he was a virtuoso), a rarely used double-bass trombone (an elongated version of the usual instrument) which looked spectacular, and a double bass, the texture was further enriched by the brass ensemble, with cornets trumpets and trombones, brightly doubling the middle choir. Moloney, writing that historians have considered Striggio to be 'conservative', asked the audience to make up its own mind. Clearly one could detect both conservative and progressive tendencies. In a sense he was avant-garde, for the Motet and the Mass date from the 1560s, yet use fully blown continuo groups. Moreover the choral textures are more chordal than contrapuntally intertwined. It is this aspect however that points to the more 'conservative' element, the restricted use of dissonance and range of chords. One feels that the saturation of primary triads is just too much at times, and texturally there is less variety and interest than in the Lassus and Tallis works.
This leads me to ask why the performers did not follow the excellent lead of Sir John Elliot Gardiner at last year's 17th century Venetian Music late night Proms, and use the central arena to recreate a spatially separated web of choirs that would have reflected more faithfully the multi-choral effects for which Striggio was apparently lauded. Nevertheless, even in this aligned staging, one could savour the rich resonance of the singing and instrumental backing, although at times Moloney's conducting lacked the intrepid accentuation and electric unanimity of attack elicited by Peter Phillips. Certainly the contrasts of mood came across: the 'Benedictus' was slightly more gentle while the first forty part 'Agnus Dei' attained a true measure of expression. Striggio's sixty part writing is reserved for the second 'Agnus Dei', a coda-like section which helped transform the Royal Albert Hall into a cathedral acoustic. It crowned a concert which recaptured the sonority and splendour of the period, and while serving to bring to light a historic curiosity, also affirmed the more powerful quality of those giants of the period Tallis and Lassus.
Copyright © 25 July 2007
Malcolm Miller, London UK