musica Dei donum
Orlandus LASSUS (1532 - 1594): "Musica Reservata - Secret Music for Albrecht V"
Profeti della Quinta; dolce risonanza
Dir: Florian Wieninger
rec: August 2012, Stift Heiligenkreuz (AT) (Bernardikapelle)
Pan Classics - PC 10323 (© 2015) (66'31")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list
Dic mihi quem portas a 8 ;
Domine exaudi orationem meam auribus percipe a 5 ;
Domine exaudi orationem meam et clamor a 5 ;
Domine ne in furore tuo arguas me - Miserere a 5 ;
Quo properas, facunde nepos Atlantis? a 10 
 Modulorum ... modulatorum secundum volumen, 1565;
 Selectiorum aliquot cantionum sacrarum, fasciculus adiunctis in fine tribus dialogis, 1570;
[3[ Psalmi Davidis poenitentiales, modis musicis redditi ... his accessit psalmus Laudate Dominum de coelis, 1584
[PdQ] Doron Schleifer, David Feldman, discantus;
Dino Lüthy, altus;
Dan Dunkelblum, Jakob Pilgram, tenor;
Elam Rotem, bassus
[dr] Sven Schwannberger, fiffaro;
Thomas List, flauto grosso;
Gawain Glenton, Kuniko Ueno, cornett;
Bernhard Stilz, cornamusa, rackett;
Bernhard Rainer, cornamusa, sackbut;
Christian Poitinger, sackbut;
Roswitha Dokalik, Gunda Hagmüller, violin;
Szabolcs Illés, violin, viola da gamba;
Eva Neunhäuserer, Judith Waldschütz, viola da gamba;
Florian Wieninger, violone;
Ori Harmelin, lute;
Anton Holzapfel, spinet
In 1556 Orlandus Lassus entered the service of Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria and started to sing as a tenor in his chapel in Munich. He was just 24 years of age. In 1563 he was appointed Kapellmeister and he held this post until his death in 1594. He had no reason to leave: the Bavarian court was one of the most prestigious in Europe and its chapel one of the largest. There were hardly any limitations on what Lassus could expect from his musicians as far as the performance of his works was concerned. His employer greatly admired his compositions and that came to the fore in the way he had Lassus's seven Psalmi Poenitentiales copied: four books of around 400 pages in total, illustrated by the court painter Hans Mielich. His miniatures are closely connected to the texts, and for that reason the so-called Mielich Codex is often called a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art). Albrecht's appreciation had just one drawback: the Duke considered Lassus' compositions as his personal property and didn't want them to be published. This explains the title of this disc. As Florian Wieninger states in his liner-notes: "[Albrecht] kept the valuable choir book in his art collection as musica reservata, where it could only be viewed by selected guests." The penitential psalms were composed in the late 1550s but were only published - without Mielich's lavish illustrations - by Adam Berg in 1584, five years after Albrecht's death.
Since ancient times the seven penitential psalms took a special place in the liturgy of the Christian church. They were especially sung during Lent, the forty days before Easter. Many composers have set one or more of these psalms, but few have created such rich and varied works as Lassus. They seem to be intended as a cycle as they follow the order of the church modes commonly used at the time. This is further underlined by their common texture. They are divided into a number of sections, corresponding to the number of verses. Each verse has the character of a motet. The psalms are for five voices, but the number of voices varies per section, going from two to five. In the last section of the doxology - "sicut erat in principium" - Lassus adds a sixth voice to bring the work to its climax.
One of the most striking aspects of these psalm settings is the close connection between text and music. This was very much a feature of Lassus' compositional style. The division of the text into a sequence of sections gave additional opportunity to set every verse in such a way that the text was incisively depicted. To that end Lassus largely avoids melismas; these psalms are mostly syllabic which lends them an almost declamatory character. The Flemish humanist Samuel Quickelberg wrote that Lassus "was so skilled (...) in expressing the intensity of the different emotions by conjuring up the subject as if it were enacted before one's eyes that one may wonder if it is the sweetness of the emotions which more adorns the plaintive melodies, or the melodies the emotions".
One of the issues in regard of performance practice - and to certain extent the raison d'être of this recording - is the use of instruments. Several ensembles have recorded these psalms with voices alone, without participation of any instruments. Among them are the Collegium Vocale, directed by Philippe Herreweghe (1), and Henry's Eight, directed by Jonathan Brown (2). One of the first recordings with voices and instruments was that by the Hilliard Ensemble and the Kees Boeke Consort (3). More recently Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden recorded these psalms in this manner with the Tölzer Knabenchor and the Musicalische Compagney Berlin (4). As far as the instrumental line-up is concerned this new release has some similarity to Schmidt-Gaden's recording. However, there are also differences. The ensemble dolce risonanza is larger than the Musicalische Compagney. It even involves instruments which were especially built for this recording, inspired by a painting by Hans Mielich, reproduced on the cover of this disc. There is also a difference in the vocal scoring. Schmidt-Gaden uses solo voices and an ensemble of ripienists, creating a dynamic contrast between sections of the psalms. Wieninger employs only solo voices.
Whether these psalms were performed with instruments in Lassus' own time is impossible to say. No performance is documented, and there is only circumstantial evidence of performance practice in the Bavarian chapel. For this particular recording the above-mentioned painting by Hans Mielich played a key role. "The question of whether the Mielich painting shows an exact performance situation or is only a representative illustration of various instruments of the time (...) has remained highly controversial to the present day", Bernhard Rainer writes in the booklet. He refers to a 'witness report' by an alto singer in the chapel who describes musical offerings at the occasion of the wedding of Albrecht's son Wilhelm in 1568, two years before Mielich created his painting. As these descriptions show strong similarity with the painting Rainer came to the conclusion that it indeed documents a concrete performance situation. However, that doesn't prove that Lassus' penitential psalms have been performed this way. Rainer thinks that this is "highly probable", but that is open for debate.
Another important issue are the circumstances of the performance. In his notes in the booklet Wieninger expresses his conviction that the psalms were not meant for liturgical use in a large church, but rather as vocal chamber music. That has consequences for the interpretation. "These acoustic conditions, without a large church echo, and the tempo ordinario - a regular, slow basic pulse as described in contemporary sources - also make possible another aspect that distinguishes our recording from others: the ornamental art of diminution. (...) We have formed the concept in accordance with contemporary sources (Hermann Finck, Girolamo dalla Casa) and then left the interpretation and improvisation up to the individual performer".
I have already indicated that the principles of this interpretation are up for debate. That is not meant as criticism: as long as we have no firm evidence of the way music is performed some guesswork is inevitable. The least we may ask is that it is based on 'historically informed' guesswork and that the decisions taken by the performers are plausible from a historical and musical point of view. That seems to me the case here. What is presented is not the only correct way to perform Lassus' penitential psalms, but one way to approach this repertoire. In this case this results in a highly interesting and musically compelling performance.
The singers are outstanding; the whole ensemble consists of male voices, and it is admirable how Doron Schleifer and David Feldman sing the upper parts. The text is mostly clearly audible, although the participation of the instruments doesn't make that easier. However, the latter add colour to the performances and underline the rhythmic and expressive features of the various verses. The verses scored for two voices are sung without instruments, and that seems right. The climax which Lassus intended by adding a sixth part in the closing verse of the doxology comes off very well. The programme is extended by two pieces which are performed instrumentally, and here we can admire the full splendour of this 'renaissance orchestra'.
This disc includes three of the seven penitential psalms. I hope that the other four will follow soon.
(1) Harmonia mundi, 2006
(2) Hyperion, 2006
(3) EMI, 1990
(4) Capriccio, 2003 and 2005; two separate discs
Johan van Veen (© 2015)
Profeti della Quinta