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Orlandus LASSUS (1532 - 1594): Lamentationes Jeremiae Prophetae - Requiem

Collegium Regale
Dir: Stephen Cleobury

rec: July 20 - 22, 2005, Swaffham Prior (Norfolk, UK), St Cyriac & St Julitta Church
Signum Classics - SIGCD076 ( 2006) (70'06")

Orlandus LASSUS: In monte Oliveti a 6; Lamentationes Jeremiae Prophetae a 5, Primi Diei; Requiem (Missa pro defunctis) a 4; Vide homo a 7; Plainchant: Absolve, Domine (mode VIII)

Orlandus Lassus was one of the most admired and influential composers of his time. Born in Mons in the Southern Netherlands in 1532 he travelled throughout Europe, held several positions in Italy and ended his career as a member of the court chapel of the Dukes of Bavaria in Munich, first as a singer, then as Kapellmeister, a position he held from 1563 until his death in 1594. Here the circumstances were ideal: in the heyday of the chapel he had more than 60 singers and instrumentalists at his disposal. He was held in high esteem by his employers, even to such an extent that Duke Albrecht considered his compositions as his private property and prevented them from being printed. Lassus's settings of the penitential psalms, for instance, were published only in 1584, 25 years after Lassus composed them and five years after the death of Duke Albrecht.

The Lamentations of Jeremiah were set to music by many composers in the 16th century. They were originally written by the prophet Jeremiah in reaction to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, who also deported the largest part of the Jewish people. In the Christian Church the fate of Jerusalem was connected to the suffering of Christ, as both were the result of the disobedience of mankind towards God. A refrain was added to every chapter: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, turn back to the Lord your God". Liturgically the Lamentations are part of the Matins (or Tenebrae) on each of the last three days before Easter, the Triduum sacrum: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Lassus composed two settings of the Lamentations, and here the four-part Lamentations from 1585 are performed. From the nine settings only the three for Maundy Thursday are sung. They are followed by the motet In monte Oliveti, whose text (Matthew 26, vv39-42) is from the responsory after the first reading from the Lamentations on Maundy Thursday. Liturgically speaking it should be sung after the first Lamentatio rather than after the third, as is the case here.

Lassus' music was particularly famous for its sonority and its expression of the text. There are some nice examples of word painting in his setting of the Lamentations. In the performance by the Collegium Regale - basically the Choir of King's College, Cambridge without the boys - the sonority is receiving more attention than the text expression. The singing is mostly legato, with little room for colouring single words or groups of words by individual singers. The ensemble produces a very beautiful sound, and the voices blend perfectly. At the same time the emotional impact of this performance is somewhat restricted. I have compared this recording with the one by Pro Cantione Antiqua (Hyperion, 1981), which sings the whole set of nine Lamentations. There it is the other way round: the text expression is better realised than the sonority. As an ensemble the Collegium Regale wins, but in regard to expression Pro Cantione Antiqua is hard to beat. In one respect I prefer this new recording: the pitch is lower than in the Hyperion recording, which seems to me more appropriate considering the character of the Lamentations.

The second major work is a setting of the Requiem Mass. Lassus wrote three settings of the Mass of the Dead; here the four-part setting is sung, which was published in 1578. Requiem Masses weren't only sung at funerals. It was the doctrine of the Purgatory - which developed in the Middle Ages - which led the church to sing Requiem Masses throughout the year, asking for the alleviation of the sufferings of the deceased. A number of Requiem Masses were composed in the 15th and 16th centuries, and these show considerable differences in regard to the parts of the Mass being set to music. Lassus didn't set the Tractus nor the sequence Dies irae. In modern performances these are sometimes sung in plainchant, for example in the recording by Pro Cantione Antiqua mentioned above. Here only the Tractus is sung (Absolve, Domine) but not not after the Graduale, where it belongs, but before the Requiem Mass, "serving here to mark the division between the two main sections of the programme", as the programme notes say. This seems to me a rather strange decision, which makes the Tractus losing its proper liturgical function.

Lassus' setting is sombre in atmosphere, also due to the low pitch which is indicated by the written-out intonations - something normally left to the interpreters. Here Lassus without any doubt made use of the low voices the court chapel in Bavaria was famous for. It seems Lassus had a special preference for the low voices as he imported them from the Low Countries. The basses of the Collegium Regale are doing a fine job here. Something I have noticed over the years in all-male choirs is that, whereas the boys usually don't use any vibrato at all, the men often apply it in abundance, and the Choir of King's College is no exception. But here they avoid it, fortunately. I'm generally more impressed with the lower voices than with the altos, which sometimes lack clarity.

The disc ends with Vide homo, a motet for 7 voices which concludes Lassus's swan song, the Lagrime di San Pietro, a cycle of 20 spiritual madrigals. He wrote the cycle "for my particular devotion now that I am of such great age". This results in a composition which is characterised by deep emotions and ends with the motet whose words are put into the mouth of Jesus: "See, O man, what things I endure for you. To you I cry, I who am dying for you". The Collegium Regale gives a good performance, but is a little short on expression.

In general I have really enjoyed this recording, and I am impressed by the singing of the ensemble. I certainly hope to hear more from them. At the same time the expression which is a feature of Lassus's music isn't fully explored. Therefore I recommend this disc, but not without reservation.

Johan van Veen ( 2009)

Relevant links:

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