Review: Striggio and Tallis - Music in Forty Parts, I Fagiolini, Perth International Arts Festival

Considered lost for 400 years, Striggio’s Mass in 40 Parts has resurfaced after apparently having been  incorrectly catalogued in the French National Library as a mass for 4 voices. 

Robert Hollingworth and I Fagiolini, the ensemble he founded back in 1986, have breathed new life into this forgotten masterpiece. With their new award winning recording and now with this live performance for the Perth International Arts Festival, they seek to restore it to it’s proper place in musical history.

The combined forces of the St George's Cathedral Choir, I Fagiolini, and some of Perth’s best professional musicians, together with internationally established Early Music exponents, in Monday night’s performance proved why there is no longer any excuse for this beautiful work to be neglected. 

Beginning with Laudate Ierusalemby Adrian Wllaert, Hollingworth gave the audience a chance to hear the beginnings of the form of combination of plainchant and polyphonic response that provides us with the basis for this kind of composition so popular in sacred music of the 16th and 17th Centuries. 

Each segment of the mass were separated with works by Lassus, Palestrina and Victoria, culiminating in the two final works, Oh Clap Your Hands by Orlando Gibbons and the seminal Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis inspired by Striggio. 

The final movement of the mass played in this performance, the Agnus Dei, rose to great heights as it developed from 40 parts into 60, the overall sound overwhelmingly stunning in effect.  Hollingworth in fact held up the score after it’s conclusion to show how intricate the scoring for this piece was.  It was inspirational in stature.

Clearly the local forces were inspired by the direction of Hollingworth.  He inspired in them great ensemble work, with some impressive singing from the St George's Cathedral Choir, who seem to go from strength to strength each time I hear them.  They have a beautiful Early Music choral sound to be envied, it is no wonder they are regarded as one of the best cathedral choirs in the country.

Gawain Glenton gave a solo turn in Palestrina’s Pulchra es amica mea on cornetto, a 15th century precursor the the modern trumpet and cornet.  To me this was one of the highlights of the evening, so simple, quiet and yet so moving.  Accompanied by Joeseph Nolan on organ, it was a rare instrumental breathe of fresh air in this otherwise purely choral program. 

Together with Paul Wright, Nolan and the combined brass, string and woodwind forces provided a united instrumental accompaniment, albiet on modern instruments.  The brass here I feel deserve particular mention, they were a strong ensemble with a glorious golden tone.

The solos choral turns were taken by members of I Fagiolini, the sopranos and tenor being some of the most pure voices I have heard live in this genre.  In fact they gave us a beautiful little humorous encore, with Hollingworth himself proving he has what it takes as a vocalist as well as conductor and musicologist.

What impressed me was the constant redeployment of players into different combinations according to the varying acoustic demands of each movement or piece.  No number was the same and this gave much to the overall aural picture, choristers and instrumentalists intermingling in seemingly endless combinations of sound and appearance.

The acoustics of the Perth Concert Hall helped much in warmth and scope but I cannot help feeling that the interior of St George's Cathedral would have been a better venue for this extraordinary evening of music.

I left this evening feeling elated and uplifted.  I do not think it matters if you are of the faith, or indeed of any, but it is impossible to deny the power and beauty of such music, designed to induce a sense of the Divine and wonder to enrich one’s soul.