Christopher Monks reflects on the challenges of performing and recording the 40- and 60-part works of Striggio and Tallis
I have never understood why some groups still place all of the singers in front of the audience for performances of Thomas Tallis's Spem in Alium and the 40-part works of Striggio. It is now widely understood that these works were originally conceived to be heard ‘in the round’, with the listener enjoying the extraordinary wave-like undulations of harmony and polyphony from inside this enormous musical structure. To hear everything in front of you is misleading, as one can only enjoy a polyphonic dense mush, which can never capture the real magic of these incredible works.
Armonico Consort have always worked hard with promoters and festivals to ensure that we can somehow find a way of ‘surrounding’ the audience with the singers, and so far have achieved that – not least with last year’s Supersize Polyphony tour – and it never fails to delight.
As a musician, it is terrifying. In these works, the list of things that can go wrong in performance is as long as your arm, and as a conductor, standing in the middle of the audience, sometimes up to 70 metres from your singers, the list is even longer. But I believe that adds something even more exciting to the performance, especially as audiences love to smell a bit of fear!
The singers must concentrate hard, ensuring they go with the beat they see and not necessarily the beat they hear, as it will only take one bar of ‘heads down’, and the whole thing will fall apart. They soon slip into a technique however, and whilst I am sure they feel far from comfortable, they feel in control. As a conductor, it is vital to give the entries clearly, especially in those conversational moments, where the individual choirs on opposite sides of the circle are in dialogue, otherwise the tempo can lag, and the performance lose its drive and energy.
The distance creates massive ensemble issues in certain venues - we surrounded 1000 people in the audience for the Canterbury Festival a few years back, and after much rehearsal, I think we managed to pull it off. I don’t think I have ever seen singers watch so hard!
The Striggio and the Tallis are very different works – whilst Spem in Alium is principally a true polyphonic work, the Striggio is made up of five choirs of eight voices in a more homophonic construction, with the text being tossed from one group to another, coming together in the important moments. In the lyrical polyphonic sections of Tallis, the dynamics are very much dictated by the pitch and the density of the musical activity, but in the Striggio, one feels a little more inclined to lend a helping hand with these, and the moments, such as the 60-part Agnus Dei, when he slips into the chord of F major in a movement of G major, the effect when pianissimo is utterly magical.
Recording in a way was much easier as whilst the singers were all still in the round, they were much closer to each other and me. The recording was made in such a way that it could be released in ‘surround’ but the initial release is going to be stereo on CD and digitally. Right now there isn’t a digital download or streaming platform that delivers ‘surround’ but that may well change in the future and if it does, we’ll be ready for it.
There is still a thought that we may yet mix this for a physical ‘surround’ release but that wasn’t going to happen in time for a release this month, but Signum Classics certainly plans to in the near future.
'Supersize Polyphony' is out now. Visit signumrecords.com for information.