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CD reviews

Orlandus LASSUS (1532 - 1594): Sacred and secular music

[I] "Biographie musicale vol. V"
Vox Luminis
Dir: Lionel Meunier
rec: Feb & May 2015, Franc-Warêt (B), Église Saint-Rémy
Musique en Wallonie - MEW 1579 (© 2015) (60'40")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/N; lyrics included - translations: E/D/F/N
Cover, track-list & booklet

A ce matin a 4 [4]; Come la cera al foco a 6 [22]; Concupiscendo concupiscit a 6 [7]; Creator omnium Deus a 6 [2]; Cum invocarem a 6 [13]; Deus misereatur nostri a 8 [8]; Domine quid multiplicati sunt a 12 [26]; Ecce Maria genuit nobis a 5 [10]; En m'oyant chanter a 4 [4]; Exaltabo te Domine a 6 [25]; Heu quantus dolor a 5 [3]; Maria voll Genad a 6 [24]; Ô doux parler a 8 [14]; O Lucia miau miau a 3; Oh d'amarissime onde a 5; Quand me souvient a 5 [12]; Quid prodest stulto a 5 [5]; Quis valet eloquio a 5 [6]; Sur tous regretz a 5; Tritt auf den rigel a 5 [9]

Helen Cassano, Clarfa Coutouly, Amélie Renglet, Zsuzsi Tóth, Kerlijne Van Nevel, Caroline Weynants, soprano; Barnabás Hegyi, Jan Kullmann, Bart Uvyn, alto; Olivier Berten, Pieter De Moor, Philippe Froeliger, Raffaele Giordani, Peter De Laurentiis, tenor; Erik Van Nevel, baritone; Olivier Meunier, Pieter Stas, Bart Vandewege, bass

[II] "Canticum Canticorum"
Choeur de Chambre de Namur; Clematis
Dir: Leonardo García Alarcón
rec: Oct 2015 & April 2016, Stavelot (B), Eglise Saint-Sébastien
Ricercar - RIC 370 (© 2016) (65'00")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Audi dulcis amica mea a 4 [1]; Magnificat super Ancor che col partire di Cipriano a 5 [16]; Missa super Susanne un jour a 5 [17]; Osculetur me osculo a 8 [18]; Quam pulchra es a 5 [21]; Surge propera amica mea a 6; Tota pulchra es a 4 [26]; Veni dilecte mi a 5 [15]; Veni in hortum meum a 16 [3]; Vulnerasti cor meum a 6 [19]

[CCN] Marine Lafdal-Franc, Elke Janssens, Amélie Renglet, Caroline Weynants, soprano; Lieselot De Wilde, mezzo-soprano; Cecil Gallois, Jérôme Vavasseur, alto; Miguel Bernal, Stephen Collardelle, Pierre Derhet, Jonathan Spicher, tenor; Matteo Bellotto, Javier Cuevas Jimenez, bass
[Cl] Lambert Colson, cornett; Stéphanie de Failly, Amandine Solano, violin; María Dolores Fernandez Mateos, viola; Sylvia Abramowicz, Margaux Blanchard, Sarah Van Oudenhove, viola da gamba; Matthias Spaeter, lute

[III] "Requiem a 5, Motets"
The Choir of Girton College, Cambridge; Historic Brass of the Guildhall, London; Lucy Morrell, organ (soloa)
Dir: Gareth Wilson
rec: July 3 - 6, 2016, Toronto, Grace Church on-the-Hill, Forest Hill
Toccata Classics - TOCC 0397 (© 2017) (60'48")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

John BENNET (fl 1599-1614): Weep, o mine eyes (arr Gareth Wilson)a; Orlandus LASSUS: Adoramus te Christe a 4 (II) [26]; Exaudi Domine vocem meam a 5 [3]; Fratres sobrii estote a 4 [11]; Levavi oculos meos a 8 [8]; Margot labourez les vignes a 4a [4]; Peccata mea Domine a 5 [20]; Requiem a 5 [23]; Tristis est anima mea a 5 [6]; plainchant: Ego sum resurrectio

Sources: [1] Il primo libro dove si contegnono madrigali, vilanesche, canzoni francese e motetti, 1555; [2] Il primo libro de mottetti, 1556; [3] Sacrae cantiones, 1562; [4] Le premier livre de chansons, auquel sont 27 chansons nouvelles, 1564; [5] Quatriesme livre des chansons, 1564; [6] Modulorum ... modulatorum secundum volumen, 1565; [7] Perornatae sacrae cantiones ... liber secundus, 1565; [8] Sacrae cantiones ... liber tertius, 1566; [9] Neue teütsche Liedlein, 1567; [10] Selectissimae cantiones, 1568 [II]; [11] Liber secundus sacrarum cantionum, 1569; [12] Mellange d'Orlande de Lassus, contenant plusieurs chansons, tant en vers latins qu'en ryme francoyse, 1570; [13] Selectiorum aliquot cantionum sacrarum, fasciculus adiunctis in fine tribus dialogis, 1570; [14] Livre de chansons nouvelles, avec 2 dialogues, 1571; [15] Moduli nunquam hactenus editi, 1571; [16] Patronum musices, 1576; [17] Missae variis concentibus ornatae, 1577; [18] Fasciculi aliquot sacrarum cantionum, 1582; [19] Motetta typis nondum uspiam excusa, 1582; [20] Sacrae cantiones, 1582; [21] Cantica sacra, recens numeris et modulis musicis ornata, 1585; [22] Madrigali novamente composti, 1585; [23] Patrocinium musices: missae aliquot, 1589; [24] Neue teutsche, und etliche frantzösische Gesäng, 1590; [25] Cantiones sacrae, 1594; [26] Magnum opus musicum, 1604


Orlandus Lassus was one of the main composers of the 16th century. He was also one of the most prolific composers of his time, and contributed to every genre, both in sacred and secular repertoire. The huge number of extant compositions probably works against him. There is so much to choose from, that most performers opt for the safest route and focus on some of his best-known works, such as the Lagrime di San Pietro, his penitential psalms and some of his masses, including the four-part Requiem. Therefore the series of five discs which Musique en Wallonie devoted to his oeuvre, is of great importance.

The first four offered a chronological survey of Lassus' output. The fifth and last instalment is a little different. It still has the form of a musical biography, but it spans Lassus' entire career in the space of 60 minutes, focusing on one particular aspect: his command of the most common languages in Europe. In the programme we find sacred works in Latin as well as secular pieces on French, Italian and German texts. These are arranged according to the various printers, who published his music. It starts with pieces, published by Flemish printers: Susato, Laet and Phalèse. Next are pieces printed in Rome and Venice, then Nuremberg and Munich and by Le Roy & Ballard in Paris. At the end of the programme we hear pieces from a book of six-part motets, printed in 1594 in Graz, and from the Magnum Opus Musicum, a collection of Lassus' complete motets, either printed or in manuscript, edited by his two eldest sons.

One of the features of Lassus' compositions is the connection between text and music. This disc includes plenty of speciments of text illustration, both in the form of madrigalisms and through the means of scoring, harmony and choice of metre. He applied these means in pieces on different texts with the same ease. In that respect he was a truly European composer, as the subtitle of this disc rightly states.

The very first piece in the programme, Creator omnium Deus opens with an eloquent depiction of the text. One voice enters after the other, with a rising figure, illustrating the creation of the world from nothing. In Quid prodest stulto Lassus sets a text from Proverbs (ch 17, vs): "What does it profit the fool to possess riches"; he adds a cantus firmus in the form of an ostinato, which is sung eleven times by the tenor, on a text from Ecclesiastes (ch 1, vs 2): "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity". Sur tous regretz is a lament, which is dominated by descending figures. Very different is O Lucia, a dialogue in the form of a moresque, which Lassus composed in Naples, where villanellas - like this moresque - were very popular.

Deus misereatur nostri is an impressive example of Lassus' use of polychorality. Even more brilliant is the last piece in the programme, Domine quid multiplicati sunt, which is for twelve voices, divided into three groups of four. The writing for twelve parts makes sense, considering the text (Psalm 3): "Lord, how are they increased that trouble me: many are they that rise against me". There is some quite effective text expression in two pieces relating to the veneration of Mary: Ecce Maria genuit nobis and Maria voll Genad, the latter being a troped Ave Maria.

Vox Luminis, best known from its recordings of baroque repertoire, and especially music from the 17th century, demonstrates here that it knows its ways in earlier repertoire as well. Both the more frivolous pieces and the solemn sacred words come off well, although I have the feeling that they feel best at home in the latter. It has one serious shortcoming: the modern pronunciation of French. The Italian pronunciation of Latin is also debatable, but in the case of an international composer as Lassus that is a rather complicated issue. Even so, this fifth volume is a worthy close to a most interesting project, which sheds light on 'forgotten' parts of the oeuvre of Orlandus Lassus.

The Ricercar disc includes specimens of three genres, for which Lassus is best known: motets, Magnificat settings and masses. Lassus has left a large number of motets, more than 500 in total. Obviously only relatively few of them are regularly performed. The motets included here are of a special kind: they are settings of texts from the Song of Songs (or Songs of Solomon). Some of them are available in several recordings, others in only a few. The difference can be explained from the fact that Lassus - unlike, for instance, Palestrina - did not publish them together; they are included in various editions. The difference also manifests itself in the scorings, which vary from four to eight voices. In every motet either the bride or the bridegroom is talking; the Latin text as printed in the booklet includes the indications sponsus and sponsa. Osculetur me is for eight voices and opens with words from the bride, followed by a chorus of young women; however, there is no kind of dialogue here.

The line-up in the performance varies from one motet to the other, from solo voices to the entire ensemble with instruments. The latter play colla voce, but sometimes they play the opening phrase as a kind of introduction. It is impossible to say, which kind of line-up is most close to the historical circumstances. Whereas Palestrina published his motets on texts from the Song of Songs for extra-liturgical performance, it is apparently not known, when Lassus' settings were performed; at least the liner-notes don't mention the issue. The singing and playing is very good, but I probably would prefer a performance with solo voices a capella. In the pieces with a larger line-up the texts are often not very intelligible. However, considering that in these pieces there is virtually no text illustration, it is less of a problem than in pieces with more descriptive features.

The two other works are both based on borrowed material. The parody technique was very common in the 15th and 16th centuries, but with time the ecclesiastical authorities showed a growing unease with the use of secular material, often considered morally inappropriate. The Council of Trent explicitly prohibited the use of musical material from chansons and madrigals for masses. Its orders were not unanimously embraced. One may assume that many aristocrats felt free to ignore them, and did not object to their chapel masters to compose masses using material from secular pieces. In the oeuvre of Lassus we also find many masses which are based on chansons and madrigals. Did he compose them before the Council of Trent formulated its liturgical orders or were they intended for the international market? It is known that Duke Wilhelm, who ruled Bavaria from 1579 to 1597, was eager to implement the church reforms and to bring his court chapel into line with the Roman rite favoured by the Jesuits, as their influence in Munich was growing. Lassus, on his part, was rather reluctant to follow those reforms. His use of his own chanson Susanne un jour for a mass likely didn't cause any problems, as its text has a moral content. It is based on the apocryphal chapter 13 of the book of the prophet Daniel. Jérôme Lejeune, in his liner-notes, points out that the music of the last sentence of the chanson - "I prefer to die in innocence rather than offend the Lord by sinning" - returns in the Agnus Dei of the mass on the words "Miserere nobis", which is probably no coincidence.

Whereas most composers made use of the parody technique in masses, Lassus also applied it frequently in his settings of the Magnificat. His oeuvre includes no fewer than 101 authentic settings of this text; forty of them are based on pre-existing material. The best-known of them is the Magnificat Praeter rerum seriem, based on a motet by Josquin. Four times Lassus turned to a madrigal by his Italian colleague Cipriano de Rore, who was especially known for his madrigals. Ancor che col partire is certainly his most famous piece. Lassus' Magnificat super Ancor che col partire is an alternatim setting: the odd verses are performed in plainchant, the even verses are set for five voices.

Both the mass and the Magnificat are performed with the full ensemble and organ; the latter is an option, which seems legitimate. The Choeur de Chambre de Namur is not so much a chamber choir, but a vocal ensemble; every member is able to sing solo. Again, it is impossible to say with how many voices Lassus may have performed these works. Here the ensemble comprises 16 voices; I would have preferred about half that number. But the singing is excellent, and thanks to the lack of vibrato the sound is very transparent. The dynamic differentiation is appropriate, but in the Magnificat I noted a passage with some strong dynamic accents, which seem out of place. The same goes for some moments in the motets. However, this is a minor issue; this is a very fine disc and a substantial addition to the Lassus discography.

The list of Lassus' compositions includes three settings of the Requiem mass; one of them is incomplete. The setting for four voices is the best-known of the other two; the one for five voices is not often performed and recorded. It first appears in a manuscript of the ducal chapel dated 22 April 1580; it was printed as part of the collection Patrocinium musices of 1589. As the form of the Requiem mass or Missa pro defunctis was not standardized yet, such works from the 16th century can strongly differ in regard to the sections which are set polyphonically and which are omitted. The latter were probably mostly performed in plainchant. Lassus' Requiem omits the Dies irae, but the performers did decide not to include it in a plainchant version. The most notable aspect of the present recording is the participation of an ensemble of one cornett and five sackbuts as well as an organ. The ducal chapel in Munich was one of the most prestigious and probably also one of the largest of its time. There can be no doubt that instruments were used in the performance of sacred music, but it is impossible to say at what kind of occasions that may have been the case, and exactly how many and which instruments took part. As we don't know for which occasion the Requiem was written, one can argue in favour and against the use of instruments. I personally have my doubts, whether a Requiem is among the kind of works that was performed this way. We also don't know how many singers Lassus had at his disposal or whether always the full number was involved in performances. Even so, the participation of 26 voices seems rather exaggerated. It damages the transparency and as a result also the intelligibility of the text. The use of instruments obviously doesn't make things any better. These not only play colla voce; here and there they also substitute for one or more voices. That is the case, for instance, in the Hostias; here the plainchant in long note-values is in the tenor. Apparently in order to make this very clear to the listener, only this line is sung, whereas the other parts are performed instrumentally. This certainly was not intended by the composer; this performance is too demonstrative and rather unnatural. The use of dynamics is also debatable; some words are emphasized through dynamic accents in an almost baroque manner, which is inappropriate for music in the stile antico.

The same is the case in the motet Fratres sobrii estote. It is one of several motets which are included in the programme, sometimes sung between sections of the Requiem, although they are in no way liturgically connected to it. Some motets are performed instrumentally; yet the texts are included in the booklet, which is nice. However, it does not make that much sense to point out some examples of text illustration in such pieces, as in an instrumental performance the connection between music and text is almost impossible to detect. The programme includes two secular pieces, both in the form of organ intbulations. The inclusion of Lassus' chanson Margot labourez les vignes can be justified by the fact that Lassus used it as the cantus firmus for one of his Magnificat settings. It also underlines that at that time there was no watershed between the sacred and the secular. However, the performance of a madrigal by the English composer John Bennett is rather odd, as he is of a different generation and is also part of a different musical culture.

Considering that Lassus' five-part Requiem is not often performed, a recording of this work is most welcome. An interpretation with voices and instruments is definitely interesting, although historically debatable. Unfortunately the actual performance delivered here is rather disappointing and has quite some shortcomings. That makes it impossible to recommend it without strong reservations.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Choeur de Chambre de Namur
Choir of Girton College, Cambridge
Vox Luminis

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