musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Orlandus LASSUS: "Great Choral Works"

The Girl Choristers and Gentlemen of York Minster Choir
Dir: John Scott Whiteley

rec: July 15 - 17, 2008, York, York Minster (Chapter House)
Regent - REGCD297 (© 2009) (61'46")

In pace in idipsum a 3 [8]; Magnificat 7. toni a 8 [7]; Missa Epiphania Domini a 6: Alleluia: vidimus stellam eius [5]; Missa Jäger [Venatorum] a 4 [6]; Quare tristis est, anima mea a 6 [2]; Surgens Jesus a 5 [1]; Surrexit pastor bonus a 5 [1]; Taedet animam meam a 5 [1]; Timor et tremor a 6; Tristis est anima mea a 5 [3]; Veni Creator Spiritus a 6 [4]

(Sources: [1] Sacrae cantiones, 1562; [2] Primus liber concentuum sacrorum, 1564; [3] Modulorum … modulatorum secundum volumen, 1565; [4] Selectissimae cantiones, 1568; [5] Missa Epiphania Domini a 6; Patrocinium musices … officia aliquot, de praecipuis festis anni … tertia pars, 1574; [6] Missae variis concentibus ornatae, 1577-78; [7] Magnum opus musicum … complectens omnes cantiones, 1604; [8] Iubilus beatae virginis, hoc est centum Magnificat, 1619)

In the second half of the 16th century Orlandus Lassus was one of the leading composers in Europe. He had the prestigious position of Kapellmeister at the court in Munich, where at some time he had more musicians available than any of his colleagues. But before he had worked in other places, and his huge output reflects the stages of his career and the various circumstances he had to deal with.

This disc presents a good survey of his works. Among the best-known pieces is the motet Timor et tremor, whereas the Missa Jäger seems to have been recorded for the first time. According to John Whiteley Scott in his liner notes this mass, in English 'The Hunter's Mass', was composed for one of the hunting parties for Lassus' employer in Munich, Albrecht V. The mass lacks the Credo, and the other sections are quite short. It is rather odd that the Gloria is sung after the Agnus Dei, which isn't explained in the booklet.

In the second half of the 16th century there was a tendency towards stronger expressive treatment of texts in sacred music, and that is especially noticeable in the oeuvre of Lassus. After all, he was also famous for his madrigals. He uses various techniques to express the content of motets, like an extension or a reduction of the number of voices, sudden shifts in metre, rising and descending figures or intervals and also harmony, something which was only to be used to full extent in the baroque era. Tristis est anima mea (My soul is exceeding sorrowful), Taedet animam meam (My soul is weary of life) and Timor et tremor (Fearfulness and trembling are come upon me) contain some striking examples of text expression. But, at the other end of the spectrum, the opening and closing motets, Surrexit pastor bonus and Surgens Jesus, effectively express the joy about Jesus' resurrection.

For a long time choirs in British cathedrals and colleges have been dominated by boys and men. In recent years several cathedrals have introduced girls' choirs, which sing in services in rotation with the all-male choirs. So far not many girls' choirs have raised to the same amount of prominence as boys' choirs. The Girl Choristers who sing with the Gentlemen of the York Minster Choir are really good as this disc shows. The voices blend well, and they shape the lines beautifully. From that perspective this is a nice disc to listen to.

But I am not totally satisfied with these performances. To begin with, with at 32 singers the choir is pretty big. It consists of 20 girl choristers and 12 adults: four altos, tenors and basses respectively. As a result the girls tend to dominate. Secondly, there is quite a large reverberation in the recording venue. This could well be the reason that the expressive aspect in Lassus's motets isn't always communicated to the full. A motet like Timor et tremor should be more incisive than it is here. Here and elsewhere the dynamic range is too limited. That is not a technical shortcoming but a matter of interpretation. And the tempi are often rather slow. That is especially noteworthy in the Magnificat 7. toni. This work dates from Lassus' Munich period, and its character suggests the participation of instruments playing colla voce. Lastly, the tendency to hold the last note for quite a long time becomes a bit stereotypical after a while.

Despite my reservations I commend this disc because the singing of the choir as such is really good and the programme contains several little-known pieces. It is just a bit disappointing that the expression in Lassus' works isn't fully exposed in these performances.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

York Minster Choir

CD Reviews