In the English-speaking world we are fascinated by and rather proud of Thomas Tallis’ 40-part motet Spem in Alium, regarding its slightly absurd gigantism with tolerant affection. Like so much else in early music, it remains generally unquestioned why Tallis should have wanted to write such an impractical and unusual work. On this rewarding new CD from Decca Robert Hollingworth resoundingly answers this question by conducting five eight-voice choirs and a large array of instrumental specialists in performances of the 40-part motet, and subsequent 40-part Mass by the Mantuan composer Alessandro Striggio. Although the motet, Ecce beatam lucem is well-enough known to have already been recorded twice by Paul van Nevel’s Huelgas Ensemble (on Sony and Harmonia Mundi), the Mass is a recent re-discovery, and this is its first appearance on disc. So: why did Tallis write Spem? Because after a performance of the Striggio Mass in London in 1567 a member of Queen Elisabeth’s court asked “whether none of our Englishmen could sett as good a songe and Tallice being very skillfull was felt to try whether he could undertake the matter”. As the CD liner notes point out, Spem in Alium “was simultaneously a tribute to Striggio and a determined effort to upstage him”. Not that the two works particularly resemble one another: Striggio uses five eight-voice choirs (which means that surround-sound owners get an extra dimension to their listening experience when they play the bonus DVD-audio disc) whereas Tallis uses four choirs of ten voices. Tallis’ nine-minute motet runs continuously and demonstrates his mastery of mid-fifteenth century contrapuntal idioms; Striggio’s more freely-composed Mass has seven shorter sections consisting of the Ordinary of the Mass, with two versions of the canonical Agnus Dei in which he broadens the ensemble to a full sixty real parts! Tallis, by contrast Rarely does one encounter anything on quite this scale—the most obvious predecessor is Brumel’s famous Missa et ecce terrae motus.
After a handful of interesting, and strongly contrasted, smaller works by Striggio (and a tiny instrumental piece by the astronomer Galileo’s father), Hollingworth et al perform Spem in Alium in a new edition by Hugh Keyte that restores the combination of voices and instruments thought to have been used in the first performance, before all-vocal renditions became the norm. While this loses a little of the ethereality of performances by, say Huelgas Ensemble or the Tallis Scholars, there is such a gain of textural complexity and structural clarity that one wonders why this has not been done before.
This is unquestionably one of the most interesting, and indeed valuable, Renaissance music CDs of recent years, offering new insights into a work most of us thought we knew. The performances are first-rate, and as musicologically informed as could be wished for, but most importantly, it sounds breathtaking. Allow yourself to be converted (if you weren’t already) to the riches of Early Music.