musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Orlandus LASSUS (1530-32 - 1594): "Responsories for Holy Week"

Ars Cantica
Dir: Marco Berrini

rec: Jan 13 - 15, 2003, Martinengo (Bergamo), Chiesa S. Maria Incoronata
Toccata Classics - TOC 0404 (© 2017) (53'13")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

[Responsories for Maundy Thursday] [Second Nocturn] Amicus meus; Judas merator pessimus; Unus ex discipuli; [Third Nocturn] Eram quasi agnus; Una hora; Seniores populi
[Responsories for Good Friday] [Second Nocturn] Tamquam ad latronem; Tenebrae factae sunt; Animam meam dilectam; [Third Nocturn] Tradiderunt me; Jesum tradidit impius; Caligaverunt oculi mei
[Responsories for Holy Saturday] [Second Nocturn] Recessit pastor noster; O vos omnes; Ecce quomodo moritus; [Third Nocturn] Astiterunt reges terrae; Aestimatus sum; Sepulto Domino

Yetzabel Arias Fernandez, Myriam Bergamaschi, Camilla Frova, Graziella Tiboni, soprano; Simonetta Bruzzone, Morena Carlin, Laura Morandini, contralto; Massimilano Broglia, alto; Renato Diafera, Sabino Manzo, Vincenzo Scarafile, tenor; Ivan Cň, Luigi Leo, Riccardo Naldi, bass

The musical repertoire for Passiontide, one of the key moments in the ecclesiastical year, is large and varied. Thanks to Johann Sebastian Bach, the narrative of Christ's Passion as found in the gospels has become especially well known, and the popularity of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater - a poetic account of Mary's feelings as she watches her Son's sufferings – ensured that it became one of the most famous of liturgical texts. However, these represent only two genres of Passion music. During Lent - the period of forty days preceding Easter - the seven penitential psalms were sung, and during the three last days of that period, known as the triduum sacrum, texts from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, as part of the Nocturns, which ended the Matins. The lamentations - known as Lectiones - were followed by three responsories.

In the large oeuvre of Orlandus Lassus all the genres of Passion music are represented. The present disc includes the eighteen responsories for the second and third Nocturns of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Written around 1580 and preserved in manuscript, they were probably intended for a performance in the private chapel of Lassus's employer, Duke Wilhelm V of Bavaria, in Munich. Scholars have wondered, why Lassus omitted the responsories for the first Nocturn. The liner-notes refer to Clive Wearing, who from 1978 to 1980 published a practical edition of the responsories (Mapa Mundi). He suggested that "this choice probably follows the liturgical tradition in the Duke's chapel of singing the three lessons of each of the first Nocturns – the Lamentations of Jeremiah – in polyphony instead of the following responsories, which were sung monodically, in plainchant. For the second and third Nocturn, this distribution was inverted: the Lessons were sung in plainchant and the responsories in polyphony."

Every responsory has the same structure. It is divided into two sections: the responsum and the versus. The responsum consists of two sections; the second is repeated after the versus, resulting in an ABCB structure. The third responsory of each Nocturn is different in that at the end the whole responsum is repeated, which extends the structure to ABCBAB. The responsories are for four voices, but - as was the custom at the time - the versus were set for reduced forces, usually three. The latter is the case, for instance, in the settings by Tomás Luis de Victoria, which he included in his Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae of 1585. Lassus creates a stronger contrast by setting the versus as bicinia, either for soprano and alto or for tenor and bass. These passages are largely polyphonic, whereas the responsa are predominately homophonic and often syllabic. This results in the texts being clearly intelligible, and that was in line with the ideals as formulated by the Council of Trent.

Anyone acquainted with other music by Lassus will probably notice a less pronounced connection here between text and music than is common in his oeuvre. However, if one listens carefully and follows the text printed in the booklet, one will notice that many textual details are effectively translated into music. The liner-notes give various examples. One of them is Tenebrae factae sunt, the second responsory from the Second Nocturn of Good Friday. The first words, "Darkness fell", are sung at low pitch, and are followed by a pause. In the next phrase, on the words "around the ninth hour", Lassus makes use of the rhetorical figure of the circulatio. The word "exclamavit" is set to a sharply rising figure. The phrase "and he bowed his head and gave up the ghost" is dominated by descending figures.

It is remarkable that no complete recording has been available before this present release. It is probably telling that the recording dates from 2003 and was released for the first time only in 2017. Lassus is one of the most famous composers of the 16th century, but the attention given to his oeuvre is rather one-sided. Apparently this part of his output has raised little interest; most ensembles probably prefer the more expressive and exuberant settings of Carlo Gesualdo. However, a good performance will reveal that Lassus's settings, despite being more restrained, are expressive in their very own way, and therefore are a worthwhile addition to the Passion repertoire. And these performances are good: the voices blend perfectly, the text is clearly intelligible, and a subtle dynamic shading is used to highlight particular elements of the text.

For those who would like to expand their horizon in the department of music for Passiontide, this fine production is not to be missed.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

CD Reviews