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Orlandus LASSUS (1532 - 1594): St Matthew Passion

Musica Ficta
Dir: Bo Holten

rec: April 6, 9 & 10, 2015, Copenhagen, Esajas Kirke
Naxos - 8.573840 (© 2018) (88'18")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ann-Christin Wesser Ingels, Louise Odgaard, soprano; Eva Wöllinger-Bengtsson, contralto; Josef Hamber, Tobias Aabye Dam, tenor; Torsten Nielsen (Evangelista), Lauritz Jacob Thomsen (Jesus), baritone; Rasmus Kure Thomsen, bass-baritone

Bo Holten, in his liner-notes to his recording of Lassus's St Matthew Passion (Passio Domini nostri Jesu Christi secundum Mattheum), rightly states that this evangelist's narrative of Jesus's Passion is almost exclusively associated with Johann Sebastian Bach's setting. The present disc reminds us that before him this text was set numerous times, since the performance of the Passion story as told by St Matthew (and St John) were part of the liturgy of two of the main days of Holy Week. Today hardly any setting from pre-baroque times are regularly performed or recorded, and that includes those by Lassus. The present recording is only the third ever released. The first (Harmonia mundi, 1994) was performed by the Theatre of Voices, directed by Paul Hillier. This recording is probably not available anymore. According to ArkivMusic Jeffrey Skidmore directed his Ex Cathedra Consort in a recording of 2011; however, it was released by the small label Somm, and will probably not be easily available. I have not heard that performance. From that perspective a new recording was long overdue. Having said that, it is in a way disappointing that again the St Matthew Passion is recorded, as the other three settings (after St Mark, St Luke and St John) have apparently never been recorded.

There are some meaningful differences between the Passions after St Matthew and St John on the one hand and those after St Mark and St Luke on the other. In the latter two, which were to be performed on lesser days in Holy Week, Lassus only set the turbae polyphonically. The rest of the narrative was sung in plainchant. In the former two Lassus also set the parts of the various characters polyphonically, either for two or three voices. He did not set the parts of the Evangelist and Jesus. These were sung in plainchant, which means that performers have to decide which source to use. Holten writes that "we have chosen a Roman Passion chant that Lassus might have been familiar with having served for several years as chief of music at the Lateran in Rome." That does not seem a very logical choice from a historical point of view. The St Matthew Passion is the only one that was printed, as part of the second volume of a series of twelve, published by the Munich printer Adam Berg; this volume dates from 1575. Interestingly, the St Matthew Passion bears a dedication to the abbott of the Benedictine monastery Weihenstephan in Freising, nearby Munich, where Lassus worked as Kapellmeister at the court of Duke Albrecht V. Therefore the choice made for Theatre of Voice's recording, a setting from a manuscript in the Bavarian State Library, which once was in the collection of the Franciscan monastery in Munich sometime before 1601, is much more convincing.

There is another issue which makes this recording different from the latter. At several moments Holten has inserted a motet. "During the Renaissance, it was customary to insert polyphonic motets into religious services with texts that fitted the occasion. We do not know if this was also the case during Easter celebrations, but I have tried to find fitting pieces among Lassus' rich treasure of motets (and even a spiritual madrigal!) to illuminate certain key moments in the otherwise austere Passion story." The fact that the application of this practice in Passions is apparently not documented, should have made him much more cautious. And if motets are inserted, one should be careful about what is selected. A spiritual madrigal is a rather unlogical choice, as this piece - from the collection Lagrime di San Pietro - was not intended for liturgical use, or even for public performance. Inserting motets is one thing, but in one instance the motet replaces the words of Jesus in the Passion. This motet, Tristis est anima mea, opens with the words Jesus speaks to his disciples, but adds words which are not in the gospel. When Jesus has given up the ghost, an Agnus Dei is sung; it is called a motet, but the list of Lassus's works in New Grove doesn't include a motet with this text. Apparently this is the last section of a mass, but which one? The source of this piece, or any other motet, is not mentioned. This Agnus Dei is also split into two: here we hear only the first section, whereas the concluding section is sung after the Passion.

I need something to say about the booklet. First of all, it is full of printing errors. Naxos has done a really bad job here. But in addition, often the indication of the characters who are speaking is wrong. I did not have access to the edition of 1575, therefore I consulted a modern edition, which is available at Petrucci Music Library. Here only single characters are specifically mentioned, such as Peter and Pilate. If more than one person are involved, they are not mentioned expressis verbis. If this is in line with the edition of 1575, it is the editor of the booklet who has added them. When Jesus is interrogated by the Chief Priest (princeps sacerdotum), his verdict that Jesus is guilty of death is followed by the reaction of those present: "Then they spat in his face and struck him with blows, but others with their hands to his face, saying: 'Prophesy to us, who is it that struck you?'" This is allocated in the libretto to the Chief Priest, which obviously is entirely wrong. Next is the scene in which Peter is accused of being a follower of Jesus. Having replied to the accusations of two servant girls, "those who were standing there came to Peter and said" - and what they said is allocated to "another girl". When Jesus is crucified, two thieves (latrones) are crucified with him. Then the Evangelist tells that "those passing by blasphemed him, nodding their heads". What they say is then wrongly attributed in the libretto to the two thieves.

The tempi are a little slower here then in the Harmonia mundi recording. However, it is impossible to decide what the 'right' tempo is, if there is something like that at all. Especially the polyphonic sections could have been a little faster. Torsten Nielsen and Lauritz Jakob Thomsen are excellent in the parts of the Evangelist and of Jesus respectively. Sometimes they bring in a dramatic element; that is the case, for instance, when the Evangelist reports that Jesus is arrested. I am not sure whether that is justified. On the other hand, it is often said that plainchant is devoid of expression. That view is untenable; listen here to the setting of the passage when Jesus asks his father why he has deserted him. It is a highly emotional moment which is effectively depicted in the music.

Despite my appreciation of the performances of the two soloists, I am disappointed about the pronunciation. At first it seemed that they used the - historically correct - German pronunciation, but later I heard the text mostly in Italian pronunciation. If I am not mistaken, in the second section of the Agnus Dei, which closes the performance, the singers are supported by wind instruments, playing colla voce, but there is no mention of it and the players are also not listed.

This performance has its merits, but also some not unimportant shortcomings, and some of the decisions taken by Bo Holten are debatable. But since there are few alternatives, this disc deserves to be welcomed. This Passion - and the three others from Lassus's pen, for that matter - should be more frequently performed, and a recording of these works is long overdue.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

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