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Orlandus LASSUS (1532 - 1594): Lagrime di San Pietro

Studio de Musique Ancienne de Montréal
Dir: Christopher Jackson

rec: May 2010, Mirabel (Québec), Église Saint-Augustin
ATMA - ACD2 2509 (© 2010) (52'50")

Kami Lofgren, Marie Magistry, soprano; Christian Bouchard, alto; Josée Lalonde, Erica McBurney, contralto; Bernard Cayouette, Jacques-Olivier Chartrier, Michiel Schrey, tenor; Martn Auclair, Normand Richard, bass

Orlandus Lassus was one of the most prolific composers of the 16th century. Some pieces within his large oeuvre are quite well-known and one of them is the Lagrime di San Pietro. It was also his swan-song, which he finished just three weeks before his death. It was published in 1595 by Adam Berg, who had printed many works by Lassus. The edition was of an exceptionally high quality, and there can be no doubt that the publisher and Lassus' sons wanted it to be a worthy tribute to the great composer.

There has been much speculation as for what reason Lassus turned to the texts by the Italian poet Luigi Tansillo about the tears of Peter about his denial of Jesus. It is mostly assumed that Lassus felt his earthly life was coming to an end and wished to do penance for his sins. His last years were difficult as in 1590 he probably suffered a stroke, and after that he never returned to his old self. His wife described his mental state as 'melancholy'. In his liner-notes François Filiatrault suggests that he suffered suffered from "what today would be called manic-depression".

The poem by Tansillo, in the common ottavo rime, is very long, and Lassus made a selection of 20 stanzas, and added a motet on a Latin text. Lassus's settings belong to the genre of the sacred madrigal (madrigale spirituale). In them the numbers three and seven play a crucial role. The number of parts is seven, the Lagrime can be divided into three large sections, and if the total number of pieces - 21 - is divided by three the result is 7. But there is no unanimity as to what exactly these numbers are symbolizing. The number 7 is mostly associated with the seven sorrows of Mary, and in the liner-notes of his recording of the Lagrime Paul Van Nevel also mentions the episode in the gospels where Peter asks Jesus if he has to forgive his brother up to seven times. Filiatraut connects the number three to the Holy Trinity, but that seems not quite relevant here. It is much more likely that it refers to the three times Peter denied Jesus. After all that is the central subject of this cycle of sacred madrigals.

In the renaissance the connection between text and music was rather loose, in comparison with the music of the 17th century. But in the oeuvre of Lassus there is a tendency to a much stronger link between them. Lassus was not only famous for his sacred music but for his madrigals as well. And the Lagrime are full of so-called madrigalisms to express the text. Lassus uses various tools to emphasize the content of specific lines, like the split between high and low voices, contrasts in tempo and rhythm, the use of long or short notes as well as harmony. This results in a very lively and evocative illustration of the content of these poems.

There are various ways to perform the Lagrime di San Pietro. At the court in Munich, where Lassus worked the largest part of his life, it was common practice to use instruments. But it isn't quite clear when instruments were used. And as no performance of these madrigals has been documented there is no concluding evidence as to which scoring is historically justified. Christopher Jackson has chosen to perform this work with voices only, and in my view that works best, even though Paul Van Nevel's recording (Sony) with instruments playing colla parte is very good. But in this performance the text gets all the attention it needs. The ensemble consists of 10 singers, but I am not quite sure whether they all sing in every piece or whether some singers are exchanged from one madrigal to the other. Whatever, I think the singers produce a beautiful sound, with exactly the right amount of intimacy and warmth. They shape the lines beautifully, and they are not afraid of some dynamic shading, without exaggeration. This is no baroque music, after all. The delivery could have been better - sometimes it isn't easy to hear the text.

But all in all this is an impressive performance which fully explores the expressive character of the Lagrime di San Pietro which is one of the great masterworks of the renaissance.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Relevant links:

Studio de Musique Ancienne de Montréal

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