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Orlandus LASSUS (1532 - 1594): "Hymnus"

Die Singphoniker

rec: Oct 24 - 26, 2011, Munich-Sendling, Himmelfahrtskirche
CPO - 777 751-2 (© 2012) (63'54")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover & track-list

Ad coenam agni providi a 4 (In octavis Paschae hymnus); Audi, benigne conditor a 5 (motet on the Vesper hymn for Lent); Ave maris stella a 4 (In festo Purificationis deiparae virginis hymnus); Christe redemptor omnium a 5 (In festo Nativitatis Christi hymnus); Conditor alme siderum a 5 (In adventu Domini hymnus); Hostis Herodes impie a 5 (In Epiphania Domini hymnus); Jesu, corona virginum a 6 (motet on the Vesper hymn for the Feast of St Catherine and other Holy Virgins)a [1]; Jesu, nostra redemptio a 6 (motet on the hymn for the Ascension of Christ and the Corpus Christi procession)a; O salutaris hostia a 5 (motet on the 5th stanza of the hymn Verbum supernum prodiens for the Feast of Corpus Christi) [3]; Veni creator spiritus a 5 (In festo Pentecostes hymnus); Veni creator spiritus a 6 (motet on the Vesper hymn for Whitsuntide)a [2]; Vexilla regis prodeunt a 6 (motet on the hymn for Passiontide and the Invention of the Cross)a [1]

Sources: [1] Perornatae sacrae cantiones ... liber secundus, 1565; [2] Selectissimae cantiones, 1568; [3] Sacrae cantiones, 1582

Markus Geitner, alto; Daniel Schreiber, Henning Jensen, tenor; Michael Mantaj, bass-baritone; Christian Schmidt, bass; with: Gerhard Hölzle, tenora

This disc is devoted to hymns by Orlandus Lassus. Today the word hymn is used indistinctively for every sacred piece sung during a service. The chorales which Bach and other German composers incorporated in their cantatas are sometimes also called hymns. However, in Lassus' time this word had a specific meaning. In New Grove we find this definition: "The Latin hymn is a strophic composition, sung in the Divine Office, with a metrical poetic text and a predominantly syllabic melody. 'Hymn' here designates compositions for the Office, as distinguished from other liturgical poetry. In the Middle Ages some hymns were also sung outside the Divine Office, such as Pange lingua for the Veneration of the Cross on Good Friday, and stichic hymns for processions."

The programme on this disc comprises a selection of six hymns for the various feasts of the ecclesiastical year. Christe redemptor omnium (Christ, the redeemer of all) is for Christmas, Ad coenam agni providi (As we prepare for the feast of the lamb) for Easter week, Ave maris stella (Hail, star of the sea) for Candlemas, Veni creator spiritus (Come, spirit creator) for Whitsuntide, Hostis Herodes impie (Herod, you ungodly enemy) for the feast of Epiphany, and Conditor alme siderum (Gracious creator of the stars) for Advent.

The dissemination of hymns in the Middle Ages was largely due to St Benedict (c480-c547) who included them into the prayers of the Divine Office in monasteries. In the next centuries a large repertoire came into existence, many of them confined to specific regions and times. Some texts appeared with different melodies, whereas some melodies were used for various texts. One of the first composers to write polyphonic hymns was Guillaume Dufay. His settings are alternatim compositions: the first stanza is usually monophonic, using the plainchant melody, the next polyphonic, and so on. Dufay mostly incorporates the plainchant melody in the upper voice, sometimes strongly embellished. In the next centuries several composers wrote hymn cycles which covered the entire ecclesiastical year, such as Victoria and Palestrina.

Lassus' collection of hymns dates from 1580/81, mostly for four voices; a small number is in five parts. His collection also covers the whole ecclesiastical year, beginning with All Saints' Day. He followed the alternatim practice from Dufay's time. He also varies the number of voices for the various stanzas. If three stanzas are polyphonic, the first and last are for the full ensemble, whereas in the middle stanza the number of voices is reduced, mostly to just two. The way the plainchant melody is treated is quite different from one hymn to the other. Sometimes it appears in the upper part, mostly elaborated and rhythmically changed, whereas the musical material is also incorporated in the other voices. In other hymns the plainchant melody is quoted in long notes. In Lassus' music we often find more examples of text illustration than in the works of many of his contemporaries. The programme on this disc includes some striking examples. Lassus especially uses changes in rhythm to good effect to single out phrases with an expression of joy.

The hymns are alternated with motets, also connected to specific feasts of the ecclesiastical year, and sometimes on the same text. The latter shows in which different ways one text can be treated. The motets are also mostly split up in various sections, and here Lassus sometimes again reduces the number of voices in one of the sections, for instance in Jesu, nostra redemptio and in Jesu, corona virginum. The motets are entirely composed of free material; the plainchant melodies are omitted. The motets chosen for this recording vary from five to six parts.

Die Singphoniker is a German vocal ensemble which has a wide repertoire which goes from plainchant to 20th-century popular music. In the recordings I know they always seem to find the right approach to the repertoire they have selected. The blending of the voices is outstanding, but there is more room for individualism in their singing than in that of, for instance, their counterparts from the Anglo-Saxon world. This seems to fit Lassus' music well, because here the text has more importance than was common in his time and certainly in the oeuvre of composers of earlier generations. The plainchant is also nicely sung, and there is a good amount of coherence between that part and the polyphonic pieces and stanzas. The duets reveal the qualities of the individual members of the ensemble, especially one of the tenors - the booklet doesn't indicate who is singing when - and the alto Markus Geitner. The latter has a beautiful voice, but in some instances he is probably a bit too clearly audible, sailing above his colleagues.

This is an important release, not only because of the quality of the performances and Lassus' wonderful music, but also because this part of his oeuvre is hardly explored as yet. It deserves to be, and this disc is a major contribution.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

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