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Orlandus LASSUS (1532-1594): Late madrigals
Collegium Vocale Gent, Hathor Consort/Philippe Herreweghe
concert: June 12, 2018, Utrecht, TivoliVredenburg (Hertz)

Alfonso FERRABOSCO II (c1575-1628): Fantasia No. 1; Orlandus LASSUS: Ben sono i premi tuoi; Canzon la doglia e'l pianto; Che è fermato; Che giova posseder; De l'eterne; Deh lascia anima homai; Ecco che pur vi lasso; Il grave de l'età; Io son sì stanco sotto'l fascio antico; O tempo, o ciel; Per aspro mar di notte; Più volte un bel desio; Quand'io penso al fuggir; Tanto e quel bene eterno amor; Vedi l'aurora; Giaches DE WERT (1535-1596): Fantasia No. 2

[CVG] Kristen Wittmer, soprano; Barbora Kabátková, mezzo-soprano; Benedict Hymas, alto; Tore Tom Denys, Thomas Hobbs, tenor; Jimmy Holliday, bass
[HC] Romina Lischka, Thomas Baeté, Liam Fennelly, Irene Klein, viola da gamba; Thomas Boysen, theorbo

Very little music before the 19th century music has a biographical character. Seldom composers wrote music because of an inner drive. Most music was written because it was part of a composer's duty, or at the request of patrons or other music-loving aristocrats. Therefore it is quite remarkable that several collections of music which Orlandus Lassus composed in the last fifteen years of his life reflect his personal emotions. He had to deal with a deteriorating health and melancholia hypocondriaca, and he was increasingly concerned about his fate in the light of death. The most famous fruit of this concern was the collection of sacred madrigals which Lassus put together under the title of Lagrime di San Pietro. This collection has received much interest and is available in various recordings, one of them by Philippe Herreweghe, directing the Ensemble vocal européen.

In contrast the madrigals Herreweghe performed with his Collegium Vocale Gent in a series of three concerts in Utrecht, Amsterdam and Brussels have never been performed since they were written and are not available on disc. The fourteen madrigals included in the programme were taken from two collections of madrigals, most of them with a spiritual content, which date from 1585 and 1587 respectively. The Madrigali novamente composti of 1585 comprise twelve pieces for five voices, whereas the second set with the same title include 23 pieces for four to six voices. The madrigals in the first collection are settings of poems by the Venetian poet Gabriele Fiamma and by Francesco Petrarca, from his collection I Trionfi. Both poets are also represented in the second collection, but here Lassus also used texts by anonymous poets as well as by Francesco Beccuti and Lodovico Ariosti. The latter collection was dedicated to Thomas Mermann, the court physician, who also took care of Lassus in the last years of his life.

In the Lagrime di San Pietro Lassus identifies with the figure of Petre, who renounced Jesus. The madrigals in these two collections are more generally about sin and salvation, about the fragility of human life and about death and eternal life. The form of the madrigal allowed a marked personal touch and a strong connection between text and music, more than would have been possible with Latin texts, often taken from the Bible or the liturgy of the Church.

The madrigals which were performed during the concert, included many specimens of text expression. De l'eterne is about a "holy fire", which is eloquently depicted, and refers to "thousand souls", which is repeated in several voices. O tempo, o ciel is about time and about the cosmos which turn and deceive "miserable mortals"; the latter words are set to low notes. The tempo then accellerates in the next phrase, about time which flies more quickly than the wind. Per aspro ma la notte is largely sombre, comparing human life with a boat on a rough sea; the text refers to Jesus' calming the storm at the lake. The next piece, Più volte un bel desio, is much more positive, and is about the fire of love, which God kindles in the protagonist; the text is illustrated by a vivid rhythm and ascending figures. Che giova posseder proclaims that wealth doesn't matter, if one is going to die in loneliness. This piece has a strong amount of firmness, until the last line where the atmosphere changes drastically. Io son sì stanco opens with a slow and dragging tempo, which suits the text: "I am so tired under the burden of contrition and evil". The same goes for the opening of the last piece in the programme, Il grave dell'età: "Heavy is old age, which comes with pain, boredom, darkness and cold".

Philippe Herreweghe always pays maximum attention to the text and the emotions it expresses. That was no different here. The six voices blended perfectly and the singers reacted with utmost attentiveness to the nuances in the text. There was some subtle but effective dynamic shading and a colouring of the voices in accordance with the content of every piece or episode.

It was a good idea to include a consort of viols. The use of instruments in the court chapel in Munich, where Lassus worked for most of his life, is well documented. Whereas loud instruments, such as cornetts and sackbuts, may have been used primarily for sacred music, viols were pre-eminently suited for vocal chamber music, such as madrigals. Moreover, the very sound of these instruments fits the predominantly sombre tone of the madrigals in the programme. It is not without a reason that Dowland wrote his Lachrimae for a consort of viols and that German composers of the 17th century often used one or more viols for lamentos. The sound of the viols of the Hathor Consort effectively underlined the content of a number of madrigals. It also played two instrumental pieces; Ferrabosco's Fantasia No. 1 was appropriately placed after Lassus's Per aspro mar di notte, as it includes quite some dissonances and chromaticism.

The participation of viols also allowed for a performance of some madrigals with one voice and instruments, a very common practice in the 16th century. Another frequent phenomenon was the intabulation of vocal items for a plucked instrument. That was the way Vedi l'aurora was performed by Thomas Boysen.

It is to be hoped that this programme will appear on disc. It sheds light on a fascinating part of Lassus' output and his development as a person, in the light of the oncoming end of his life. Moreover, it reveals a different side of Petrarca, almost exclusively known for his love poetry. Last but not least it documents the developments in the way composers treated a text. Lassus was one of the composers whose (later) oeuvre forshadows the stile nuovo, which emerged around 1600.

And which ensemble would be better equipped to reveal the expressive power of these spiritual madrigals than the Collegium Vocale Gent?

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

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