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Orlandus LASSUS (1532 - 1594): Lagrime di San Pietro

Gallicantus
Dir: Gabriel Crouch

rec: Jan 2 - 4, 2013, London, St Michael's Church, Highgate
Signum Classics - SIGCD339 (© 2013) (53'21")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translation: E
Cover & track-list
Scores

Il magnanimo Pietro; Ma gli archi; Tre volte haveva a l'importuna; Qual a l'incontro di quegli occhi santi; Giovane donna il suo bel volto in specchio; Così talhor; Ogni occhio del Signor lingia veloce; Nessun fedel trovai, nessun cortese; Chi ad una ad una raccontar potesse; Come falda di neve; E non fu il pianto suo rivo; Quel volto, ch'era poco inanzi stato; Veduto il miser quanto differente; E vago d'incontrar chi giusta pena; Vattene vita va; O vita troppo rea; A quanti già felici in giovanezza; Non trovava mia fé si duro intoppo; Queste opre e più; Negando il mio Signor; Vide homo, quae pro te patior

David Allsopp, Mark Chambers, alto; Nicholas Todd, Christopher Watson, tenor; Richard Bannan, Gabriel Crouch, baritone; William Gaunt, bass

Orlandus Lassus was one of the greatest, most prolific and most versatile composers of the 16th century. Born in Flanders he worked across Europe until he found a position as Kapellmeister in Munich, at one of the most important and wealthy courts of the second half of the century. He contributed to virtually every genre in vogue and, being a polyglot, set texts in Dutch, French, Italian, German and Latin with the same ease. However, the toils and tribulations of his time didn't spare him. Once his employer was almost bankrupt, and as a result the chapel which was larger than almost any other chapel in Europe was heavily reduced. That said, in the last decades of his life he was in a comparably happy state as he had sufficient musicians of excellent quality in his chapel to allow him to perform his music with pump and circumstance.

His personal life he was less happy. He often fell victim to melancholy. As Gabriel Crouch mentions in his liner-notes, he was frequently visited by the court physician, and as a token of his gratitude devoted a book of madrigals to him. In these years he seldom composed any music.

The Lagrime di San Pietro is his last work which he wrote in the year of his death. These 21 sacred madrigals are settings of texts by the Italian poet Luigi Tansillo, from a cycle of 42. This choice certainly wasn't accidental. Tansillo wrote these poems as an act of penitence, as during his career he had frequently come into conflict with Papal censorship. With his poems he won the Pope's approval, and it seems that this was also the purpose of Lassus' setting of his selection from Tansillo's texts.

It is not totally clear, though, whether Lassus wanted to do penance for certain specific sins. Crouch - and he is not the only one - refers to the fact that Lassus had often set texts to music of a morally dubious character. Those pieces reveal his "sense of mischief and taste for scandalous subject matter". However, he certainly wasn't unique in this respect. In the oeuvre of various composers one can find texts of that kind which are not fundamentally different from those which Lassus used. It is one of the notable contradictories of the 16th century. It is also quite possible that Lassus felt that his life was coming to its end and wanted to express his longing for the forgiveness of his sins in general.

The subject matter of this sequence is the denial of Christ by Peter, one of his most loyal disciples. The first six madrigals describe how Peter is confronted at the cross with the eyes of Jesus which "pierce Peter's soul". It makes him realize what he has done. "Each eye of the Lord was like a swift tongue" - with these words the seventh madrigal opens. In this and the next Peter imagines hearing Jesus' voice which carries a tone of reproach. Madrigals 9 to 13 then describe Peter's tears and the madrigals 14 to 20 are put into his mouth: Peter expresses his wish to be punished. The cycle closes with a text in Latin from the 13th century by Philippe de Grève. Here it is Christ who is speaking: "See, O man, what I have suffered for you, I cry out to you, I who am dying for you".

This cycle is symbolic in several ways. First of all, numbers play an important role, in particular the number seven. The madrigals are scored for seven voices, Lassus makes use of seven different church modes and the total number of madrigals is 21: seven times three. The latter is the number of the Trinity, as Crouch writes. However, this is probably not what it means here. It is more plausible to see the number three here as as symbol of the number of times Peter denied Christ.

Secondly, Lassus dedicated the work to Pope Clemens VIII, with these words: "I hope that you will take pleasure in listening to my music, not for itself, but for the subject of which it speaks, Saint Peter, the foremost among the apostles of whom you are the true and lawful successor." This bears witness to the fact that Lassus and the court which employed him were supporters of the Counter Reformation and confirmed the claim of the Papacy to be the legitimate successor to Peter - a claim which was strongly attacked by Luther and other representatives of the Reformation.

Lagrime di San Pietro is one of the masterworks in music history. Lassus was one of the greatest madrigal composers of his time, and that comes to the fore here. More than almost any work from that time the text is incisively expressed in the music. Lassus uses every means of his time to illustrate the text, such as harmony, the reduction of the number of voices, the juxtaposition of high and low voices and the direct depiction of words or phrases. Sometimes the expression is quite drastic, such as the opening of the 'speech' of Peter at the beginning of the fourteenth madrigal: "Leave me, life, be gone!", he cried, weeping, "go where no one hates or scorns you". Other examples are the illustration of "the lame were made to walk" and "the dumb to speak". The latter words are followed by an eloquent pause.

Unfortunately Gabriel Crouch doesn't touch the issue of performance practice. The Lagrime are available in various recordings and these differ in two aspects. Crouch performs these madrigals with one voice per part, other performances are by a small choir. Secondly, in some recordings the voices are supported by instruments (for instance the Huelgas Ensemble, Sony). Others, and that includes Gallicantus, omit any instruments and sing these pieces a cappella. We don't have any information about performances in Lassus's time. Although the chapel at the Munich court included a considerable number of instrumentalists, that doesn't mean that these were also employed during a performance of these madrigals. It is even quite possible that these pieces were never performed at the court at all. Because of that there is little to go by in making decisions about how to present this work. Although a performance with instruments can be very good - and the Huelgas Ensemble's is very good - in my experience an interpretation with voices only does more justice to the character of this cycle.

Delivery is crucial. That is exactly one of the virtues of the present recording: much attention has been paid to the text which is always clear to understand. Crouch makes his singers follow the nuances of the text most carefully, underlining words and phrases through dynamic shading and looking for an optimum transparency. In the end what is decisive is whether the singers manage to communicate the highly emotional content of this unique composition. That is what the members of Gallicantus do.

This is a thoroughly compelling performance which has everything necessary to make a lasting impression.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

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