musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Lassus: Prophetiae Sibyllarum & Requiem

[I] Prophetiae Sibyllarum
Vocalconsort Berlin
Dir: Daniel Reuss
rec: May 2015, Berlin-Oberschöneweide, Christus-Kirche
Accent - ACC 24307 (© 2015) (49'06")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet
Score Prophetiae Sibyllarum

Angelus ad pastores ait a 5 [1]; Ave Maria a 5 [5]; Dixit Dominus a 8 [3]; Magnificat super aurora lucis rutilat a 10 [6]; Prophetiae Sibyllarum a 4 [4]; Quem vidistis, pastores a 5 [2]; Videntes stellam a 5 [1]

[1] Sacrae cantiones, 1562; [2] Cantiones aliquot, 1569; [3] Selectiorum aliquot cantionum sacrarum, fasciculus adiunctis in fine tribus dialogis, 1570; [4] Prophetiae Sibyllarum ... chromatico more singulari confectae, 1600; [5] Magnum opus musicum ... complectens omnes cantiones, 1604; [6] Iubilus beatae virginis, hoc est centum Magnificat, 1619

[II] Officium pro omnibus fidelibus defunctis
Capella Foccara
rec: August 10 - 12, 2015, Mering, St. Johannes Kirche
Perfect Noise - PN 1503 (© 2015) (44'28")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: D
Cover & track-list

Gerhard Hölzle, tenor; Felix Rumpf, baritone; Hans Ganser, bass; Burkhard Kosche, basso profondo; Matthias Sprinz, Cas Gevers, Ralf Müller, sackbut; Angelika Radowitz, bass dulcian; Michael Eberth, organ

In the course of the 16th century composers turned to a closer connection between text and music. That comes especially to the fore in the madrigals written by some of the most famous representatives of the Franco-Flemish school. Gradually this tendency spread to sacred music, and this resulted in so-called madrigalisms. One of the main representatives of this trend was Orlandus Lassus, in his time by far the most celebrated composer in Europe. This disc brings together some fine specimens of his brilliance in the realm of text expression. That goes especially for his Prophetiae Sibyllarum which were not printed during his lifetime, but made a great impression on his contemporaries which suggests that this work must have circulated in manuscript. It seems to have been composed during Lassus' years in Italy, before he entered the service of Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria.

This is one of the most remarkable works by Lassus, in part because of its texts. The Sibyls were oracular women which in ancient Greece were believed to possess prophetic powers. The first author to mention a Sibyl was Heraclitus in the 5th century BC. In the course of time various authors referred to more Sibyls, up to ten, whose names referred to the shrine from which they spoke. In the Renaissance the number varies, and sometimes reaches twelve, as is the case in Lassus' settings. The Sibyls were also the subject of paintings, for instance Michelangelo's in the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Here Lassus was active as maestro di cappella in 1553/54. The Sibylline writings had been given a Christian interpretation since the second century. They were believed to prophesy the coming of Christ. Although composers set texts by ancient writers without any Christian connotation, in this case the Christian interpretation must have been the incentive to set them to music. The fact that the manuscript of this work which is preserved in the Austrian National Library also includes the Sacrae Lectiones ex propheta Job points in that direction. Even so, this is no music for the liturgy: the texts certainly didn't fit any liturgical context, and it seems plausible to assume that both cycles were written for domestic performance.

This probably means that a performance with a small ensemble, maybe even solo voices, is to be preferred. That way the many unusual harmonic progressions may come off to optimum effect. The use of harmony is one of the most striking aspects of these settings. It is often written that they are dominated by chromaticism, but in the liner-notes to his recording with The Brabant Ensemble Stephen Rice disputes this view. The opening phrase of the 'prologue' says: "Carmina chromatico quae audis modulata tenore". Rice states that the word chromatico doesn't refer to carmina, but to tenore. The booklet gives this translation: "The modulating songs with a chromatic tenor". "In fact the tenor of the prologue is not chromatic at all, at least in the sense in which the term was understood in the sixteenth century: all of its melodic intervals are diatonic". Rice then talks at length about the debates on tuning in Lassus' time; if you want to read this you can download the booklet from Hyperion's website.

Nothing about this is mentioned in the booklet of the present recording. Bernhard Schrammek writes: "A frequent stylistic device utilised by the composer in the twelve motets is chromaticism - already referred to in the Prologue in the mention of the 'Carmina chromatico'. Here Lasso often juxtaposes disparate harmonies to enhance expression." If one looks at the texts which are about the coming of Christ there seems little reason for such "disparate harmonies". That raises the question of why he used them. Otherwise chromaticism plays hardly a role in Lassus' oeuvre and certainly not on this scale.

The connection between the Sibyllic prophecies and Christmas inspired Daniel Reuss to extend the programme with a number of liturgical pieces for Christmastide. Obviously there are no reasons here to turn to "disparate harmonies". The Magnificat in particular has a celebratory character, partly thanks to the scoring for ten voices. As with so many settings of this text it is an alternatim composition: the odd verses are sung in plainchant. An example of text expression comes in the low notes on "procidentes" (falling down [of the magi]) in Videntes stellam. This feature of Lassus' compositional style is even more pronounced in Dixit Dominus, the first psalm of the Vesper service which has inspired many composers throughout history to some of their most impressive compositions. With the means of the stile antico Lassus manages to depict the most dramatic verses, 'Dominus a dextris tuis' and 'Judicabit in nationibus'. He also uses the eight voices - split into two choirs - quite effectively.

In such compositions the performance with instruments colla parte could be a legitimate option. However, a performance with voices alone suffices to communicate the music's content and character. Reuss has opted for a line-up of generally two singers per voice. That is certainly right as far as the performance of the liturgical pieces is concerned if we consider the large chapel Lassus had at his disposal. As already mentioned, the Prophetiae Sibyllarum would probably fare best with one voice per part. The Vocalconsort Berlin is a little smaller here than The Brabant Ensemble and although I haven't compared both recordings piece by piece the harmonies seem to come off a little better in the present recording. The singing is also more declamatory than The Brabant Ensemble's which is more linear and straightforward.

All in all, both recordings are well worth having especially as the additional music is very different. Reuss and his singers certainly deliver a strong case for these masterpieces by Lassus.

The hymn Dies irae also includes a reference to the Sibyls, but then singular, probably representing the collective. Here it is not so much a figure who prophesies the birth of Christ but the end of time: "Day of wrath, that day will dissolve the earth in ashes as David and the Sibyl bear witness". It is not known for sure who wrote the text but its origin goes back to the 13th century; it could also been older. This hymn is best known for being included as a sequence in settings of the Requiem Mass.

Orlandus Lassus composed two Requiems, for four and five voices respectively. The former is included in a collection of Mass settings which was printed in Paris in 1577/78. In this setting the Dies irae is omitted. In some recordings the sequence is included in a plainchant version, for instance in Pro Cantione Antiqua's performance (Hyperion, 1981). But not long ago an earlier version of this setting was discovered in a choirbook from the former Benedictine Abbey St. Ulrich und Afra in Augsburg. "The version found in the Augsburg choir book is not only the oldest, but most certainly the original version of the Requiem, including a setting of the 'Dies irae', which is missing in all of the later transmissions", according to the booklet.

It is relevant to note here that it was the Council of Trent which decided that the sequence should be part of the Requiem. However, only in 1570 it was formally incorporated into the Roman Missal. James Haar, in his article on Lassus in New Grove, states that "Lassus is known to have been stubborn about changing things at Munich to conform to new ideas coming from Rome". That could explain that he omitted the Dies irae in the edition of 1577/78. But why did he include it in the first place?

It is not known for what occasion the four-part Requiem was written. The liner-notes to the recording by the Capella Foccara suggests two possibilities. The first is a ceremony commemorating the anniversary of the death Cardinal Otto Truchseß von Waldburg (1514-1573), Prince Bishop of Augsburg. The fact that the bishop was an advocate of the Tridentine reforms probably points in this direction. Another possibility is that it was written for Hans Jakob Fugger (1516-1557) who had close connections to the Munich court and also to the monastery of St. Ulrich und Afra. In the monastery is also a Fugger chapel and in the church there is an epitaph for Hans Jacob Fugger.

The inclusion of the Dies irae is not the only difference between the early manuscript version and the printed edition. The former is also in a different pitch: "The original version from Augsburg is a perfect fifth lower than later printed editions of the composition which puts all four voices into an extremely low register, requiring the following vocal ranges: tenor, baritone, bass and basso profondo". The latter also sings the intonations.

As we don't know for which occasion the Requiem was written it is also impossible to tell where it was performed and under what circumstances. The Capella Foccara sings it with one voice per part which is probably the most common line-up at the time. If it was performed at the court in Munich a larger ensemble may be more appropriate. The voices are supported by three sackbuts, bass dulcian and organ, playing colla parte, "consistent with the performance practice of the period", as the liner-notes state. That is a bit of a generalisation: in Munich Lassus had a large chapel with a considerable amount of instruments at his disposal but that doesn't imply that the instruments were always used. Elsehwhere the use of instruments was probably dependent on the occasion and the availability of instruments. I don't know whether there were any conventions at the time in regard to the use of instruments in Requiems. Another item is the Italian pronunciation which is historically unjustified.

Setting aside this aspect, this is a very interesting contribution to our knowledge of Lassus as a composer of sacred music and especially masses which seems a part of his output which is not given that much attention. The performers do a very good job here; the singers and players are excellent and Burkhard Kosche deserves much praise for his outstanding interpretation of the lowest part.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Capella Foccara
Vocalconsort Berlin

CD Reviews