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"Lost" 450-year-old mass soars on British charts

A sumptuous first recording of a long-lost 450-year-old Italian Renaissance mass written for 40 different vocal parts has soared onto British pop charts a week after its release.
/ Source: Reuters

A sumptuous first recording of a long-lost 450-year-old Italian Renaissance mass written for 40 different vocal parts has soared onto British pop charts a week after its release.

The recording by British vocal group I Fagiolini of the little-known Alessandro Striggio's 1566 mass for 40 voices -- most masses are written for four -- made its debut at number 68 on the pop charts, above Bon Jovi, George Harrison and Eminem.

It was number two on the classical charts, just behind Dutch violinist waltz master Andre Rieu.

"We really worked hard so that there could be a properly magnificent and extravagant sound world for the piece to revel in," I Fagiolini's conductor and founder Robert Hollingworth, 44, who thinks the mass has a "mesmeric" quality, told Reuters in a telephone interview Sunday.

"This is not the grainy, black-and-white film, this is the full Hollywood Technicolor. I think that's why it works so's like a kind of aural kaleidoscope."

The mass was performed in several major European cities when it was written but had been mis-catalogued at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris where it was rediscovered a few years ago by musicologist Davitt Moroney, and given its first modern performance at the BBC Proms in London in 2007.

I Fagiolini and their label Decca Classics, a part of the Universal music group, spared no expense on the recording. It uses five choirs and a panoply of period instruments, from trombone-like sackbuts to the 11-stringed lirone, a cello precursor, as well as lutes, recorders and Renaissance strings.

The instruments play lines of music that would otherwise be sung, which Hollingworth said was accepted practice at the time.

The CD release includes a DVD which offers the Striggio mass, plus another 40-part Striggio motet, and English composer Thomas Tallis's 40-part "Spem in Alium" -- written after Striggio's works, and possibly inspired by them -- in surround sound, plus a documentary about the making of the recording.

Striggio, who lived from 1536/7 to 1592, was a court composer to the Medici family in Florence and would have written the mass in 40 parts because, as Hollingworth put it, the Medicis liked to "make a big stink and money wasn't a problem."

Musical events at the time included the use of "cloud machines" on which performers descended to the stage, costumes and oil lamps to create special visual effects -- "and finally you would hear the music," Hollingworth said.

"Music never existed in a vacuum, it was absolutely part of other things," he said, explaining that by writing a mass for 40 parts, Striggio would have hoped it would rise above the fray.

The composer had a flair for drama. The opening Kyrie uses a fraction of the forces on hand, but he lets rip in the succeeding Gloria and the conclusion is written for 60 parts.

The rediscovery and revival of interest in the Striggio mass has led to inevitable comparisons with the work by Tallis. Tallis, who lived from 1505-85, was a big favorite of England's Queen Elizabeth I, and his "Spem in Alium" (roughly, "Hope in any other") is noted for ground-breaking dissonance and often described as an astonishing technical achievement for its time.

Knowing that would be the case, Hollingworth has included the Tallis on his recording, but in a version replacing some of the voices with period instruments, giving it a twist from the usual all-vocal versions.

He thinks both pieces have their strong points and that devotees of the Tallis should open their ears to the Striggio.

"If one has to examine them in the cold light of day you might say the Tallis is better than the Striggio, but who's to is a better drink than wine?"

The Striggio mass, he added, "is a thumping good piece of music."