Writing in The Guardian, conductor and musicologist Robert Hollingworth finds a terrific metaphor that confronts head-on the elephant in the living room (or the church) when it comes to performances of renaissance polyphony written in many, many parts: it's often experienced as "just a lovely gooey noise" and a "rich tiramisù of sound" that is layered, sweet, and sensually complex, but exceptionally dense and usually best consumed in small portions. To counter this virtual inevitability when voices are singing 40 (or in one movement, 60) separate parts, on this recording Hollingworth substitutes instruments for some voices. The voices are divided into four or five antiphonal choirs, and Hollingworth creates further textural variety by having instruments double some of the choirs. Anticipating the objections of purists, he asserts that this was an accepted performance practice when the works were written, and offers evidence that the 1567 performance of the 40-voice mass, Missa Ecco sì beato giorno (1566), by Alessandro Striggio (c. 1536/7-1592) in Munich, where Orlando di Lasso served the court, certainly included instrumental parts.
The centerpiece of this album is Striggio's long-lost, recently rediscovered mass, the inspiration and model for Thomas Tallis' famous 40-voice motet, Spem in Alium, which is also included, along with Striggio's 40-voice motet, Ecce beatam lucem. The editions that Hollingworth uses (by himself, Hugh Keyte, and Brian Clark) are subtle and inventive in their application of instruments to the choral mix. Even the most massive movements, like the Sanctus from Striggio's Mass have enough timbral diversity to keep the forces from coming across as monolithic slabs of sound. In contrast to the gigantism of the three featured works, Hollingworth brilliantly programs the rest of the CD with contrasting music for more modest forces, including a lovely Contrapunto for two lutes and lirone by Vincenzo Galilei, a set of madrigals by Striggio, and the late Medieval unison Sarum plainchant, Spem in alium.
The performances should prove revelatory to anyone who loves Renaissance polyphony, and even to choral fans who might have been resistant to the music of that era. The crispness of the counterpoint and the differentiation between the groups of the 8 or 10 vocal and instrumental performers in each choir have rarely sounded so clear, making the structure of the music far easier to follow than is usual. The addition of instruments in no ways diminishes the grandeur of the music. The performances are warm but precisely articulated, a marvel of musical and engineering coordination. The recording was made with the intent of being heard in surround sound so that the listener is surrounded (as were early audiences) on all sides by the musicians. The album includes a DVD with audio tracks of the three large works in surround sound, as well as a video documentary about the music, the performance, and the recording. Highly recommended.