musica Dei donum

CD reviews

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

Capella Ducale Venetia
Dir: Livio Picotti
rec: Nov 5 - 8, 2000, Costabissara/Vicenza (It), Chiesa San Giorgio
CPO - 999 862-2 (56'53")

Nadia Caristi, Ulrike Wurdak, soprano; Alessandro Carmignani, alto; Paolo Fanciullacci, Fabio Furnari, tenor; Marco Scavazza, baritone: Walter Testolin bass; Gianpaolo Capuzzo, Marco Rosasalva recorder; Daniele Cernuto, Cristiano Contadin, Rodney Prada, Nanneke Schaap, viola da gamba; Paolo Tognon bassoon; Vittorio Zanon organ

Orlandus Lassus was the most famous composer of the second half of the 16th century. The publication of the Lagrime di San Pietro is a testimony of his fame. It is a splendid edition, prepared with utmost care by Adam Berg in Munich, who had published Lassus’s works since 1567.
Lassus himself never saw the edition. It appeared in 1595, one year after his death. The last five years of his life were difficult. From 1587 onwards he suffered from melancholia and hallucinations. Shortly before his death he was able to compose again, and he decided to select twenty sacred madrigals from the collection Lagrime di San Pietro by the Italian poet Luigi Tansillo (1510 – 1568), which contained forty-two stanzas of eight lines (ottave rime) on the grief and the repentance of St Peter after his denial of Christ. To these twenty madrigals Lassus added a Latin motet.

The images used in secular poetry were often used in sacred poetry as well. The love for a lady was transferred to the relationship between the believer and Mary or Jesus. The Lagrime is no exception. It contains elements which also appear in secular poetry of the time.
The Lagrime doesn’t describe the events at the cross, but the feelings of St Peter about what is going on, and in particular his role in it. Lassus’s music is following the text very closely, making use of the madrigalisms which were in vogue.
There is also strong symbolism in the settings by Lassus. This symbolism turns around the numbers seven – all madrigals are set for seven voices - and three – the cycle is divided into three sections. The whole cycle contains twenty-one items; three times seven. The number seven is associated with sorrow and sin, the number three here refers to the number of times St Peter denied Christ.

There are different theories regarding the reasons why Lassus composed this work. Some believe that, since Lassus felt his end was near, he thought it necessary to do penance for his sins – for instance, his composition of secular works on morally dubious texts – and a composition like this was the best way to do so. Whether this is true or not, this work certainly had a personal meaning for Lassus, as in the dedication he called it "a personal devotion at this difficult age".
In his liner notes, Marco Gemmani states, "In a highly critical environment, such as Germany was during this period, the ‘Lagrime’ represents Orlando di Lasso’s ultimate effort to bring about the reconciliation of the Catholic world and the Protestant world, two worlds which at the time were moving farther and farther apart." But he doesn’t give any evidence to support this assumption. In fact, Lassus dedicated the work to the pope, Clemens VIII, with these words: "I hope that you will take pleasure in listening to my music, not for itself, but for the subject of which it speaks, Saint Peter, the foremost among the apostles of whom you are the true and lawful successor." How could this help to reconcile Catholics and Protestants?

The Lagrime di San Pietro has been recorded a number of times before. Generally speaking there are two kinds of interpretation: a cappella or with voices and instruments. Although the practice at the Bavarian court where Lassus worked certainly suggests a frequent use of instruments, one could argue that because of the intimate character of these sacred madrigals an ‘a cappella’ performance is most suitable.
Livio Picotti has chosen the second option, though. Alongside the seven singers he uses two tenor recorders, two tenor viols, two bass viols, bassoon and organ, which play strictly colla parte.
Marco Gemmani writes: "The practice employed here, that of refraining from cheap coloristic exaggerations, enables it to reveal the strong mystical character pervading the whole of the work." This is an honourable approach, but does that imply a performance with very little expression of the text? That is what is the problem here. The text is very hard to understand: the singers don’t articulate very well. Furthermore, the voices are rather dark-coloured and the addition of instruments doesn’t make it easier to follow the text. The tempi are pretty straightforward, without much differentation on the basis of the text.

Another matter is the fact that two groups of three madrigals (13 – 15 and 19 – 21) are notated in chiavette. The general view is that in cases like this the composer intends a transposition downwards. This practice has been ignored here.
I am not very satisfied with this performance. If one prefers an interpretation with voices and instruments, the recording by Paul Van Nevel’s Huelgas Ensemble (Sony) is first choice. I personally prefer an a cappella performance; here I recommend the recording by the Ensemble vocal européen, directed by Philippe Herreweghe (Harmonia Mundi).

Johan van Veen (© 2003)

CD Reviews