musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Orlandus LASSUS (1532 - 1594): Magnum Opus Musicum

Choeur de Chambre de Namur; La Fenice
Dir: Jean Tubéry

rec: Sept 2004 & July 2008, Bolland, Église Saint-Apollinaire
Ricercar - RIC 283 (© 2009) (56'08")

Ad primum morsum à 6; Bestia stultus homo à 5; Cantione sine textu XVI à 2; Cantione sine textu XXI à 2; Cantione sine textu XXII à 2; Fertur in conviviis à 4; Haec quae ter à 3; Hispanum ad coenam mercator Belga à 5; Homo cum in honore à 6; In hora ultima à 6; In quoscunque locos à 5; Lauda Mater Ecclesia à 4; Luxuriosa res vinum à 6; Non des mulieri à 6; Nunc gaudere licet à 6; O decus celsi à 6; Pulvas et umbra à 4; Quam pulchra es à 5; Qui regit astra à 4; Quid trepidas a 6; Super flumina Babylonis à 5; Ut quaeant laxis à 4;

In the liner notes Jérôme Lejeune writes that Jean Tubéry has rightly entitled this disc The Humours of Orlando. Strangely enough that is not what is on the cover. That only refers to the collection the pieces in the programme come from. Is this another one of Ricercar's notorious inaccuracies in the production of its booklets?

Jean Tubéry's title does make sense, though. Before the romantic era composers didn't usually express their personal feelings in their compositions. But Lassus is in some respect different. One of his most famous works, the Lagrime di San Pietro, can be considered an expression of his awareness of being a sinner, as he identified with Peter, the disciple of Jesus who denied him three times.

We don't know that much of the personal life and personal feelings of composers before the 19th century. But Lassus has written many letters which allow us to get some idea of his character. Some of these letters have been included in the booklet. Most motets are preceded by a fragment from a letter. Unfortunately these are only in French, so everyone who doesn't understand French is left in the cold.

This disc contains motets which have been published by Lassus' sons in the collection Magnus Opus Musicum in 1604. From the several hundreds of motets Jean Tubéry has chosen a small number to perform on this disc. The first part of this collection contain a series of two-part instrumental Cantiones sine textu. These are the only instrumental pieces from Lassus' pen which are known.

If the term motet is used one expects liturgical, or at least sacred, compositions. But originally the motet was simply a polyphonic composition and could be either sacred or secular. In the 15th and 16th century a considerable number of pieces were written which were called motet but whose contents were secular. Some of them were based on texts by classical authors, like Virgil, other texts were of a political nature.

Some of the motets on this disc have satirical texts. In we meet a Spaniard who asks: "How is it that the men of your region begin to snore when they have drunk aplenty?" "These words are badly chosen, the kindly host replied to the Spaniard, for we drink the wine of your country, borne here from afar. You others drink iced water, although you burn with thirst. That you foolishly mock is not surprising, for what you drink, your asses drink also!". There are motets about whine, some are written for special occasions, like weddings, others have a moral content, and there are also some intellectual games.

An example of the latter is Super flumina Babylonis, a well-known text of a lamenting nature. "The text is laid out letter by letter, syllable by syllable, word by word: S, U, SU, P, E, R, PER, SUPER." It is rightly asked in the booklet whether this has anything to do with expressing the text. The answer is definitely: no. But that wasn't Lassus' intention. In other pieces one is more than compensated as there are many striking examples of Lassus effectively translating the text into music.

In regard to repertoire this disc fills a gap in the discography. At least I can't remember having ever heard the pieces on this disc. Their character is done full justice by the performers. One should not be misled by the name of the Choeur de Chambre de Namur. It is not a chamber choir in the traditional sense of the word, but rather a vocal ensemble. No less than eight of the 19 singers also sing solistically, and the ensemble is very agile and its sound transparent.

The use of instruments in this repertoire is a matter of debate. There is no doubt that Lassus had a large number of instrumentalists at his disposal at the Bavarian court, where he worked the most part of his life. But when exactly they were used and which instruments were used in what music is very hard to decide. The instruments are probably used a little too frequently here, but the instrumentalists play very well, and they certainly add some colour to the ensemble.

All in all this is a very good disc which is a worthwhile addition to the catalogue and sheds light on a little-known aspect of Lassus' oeuvre.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

Choeur de Chambre de Namur

CD Reviews