Notes and Editorial Reviews
Listening to the first four measures of the prologue to Orlando di Lasso’s Prophetiae Sibyllarum, it’s understandable that one might think “Gesualdo”, given the striking, unexpected shift from C major to C-sharp minor. And there are many more such bold harmonic exploits throughout the 12 subsequent four-voice movements of these Sibyl prophecies. The only problem with this proposed association is that in the 1550s, when these works were written, Gesualdo as a stylistic rebel hadn’t yet been invented, let alone born (circa 1560). At the time serious debate was ongoing concerning the function of intervallic relationships, intonation, and harmony in musical composition, and Lasso was not confined to nor
obligated by what in later generations were accepted theoretical conventions.
In the center of the program are a Magnificat and three motets, each more gorgeous than the last. And the last, the five-voice Tristis est anima mea, is one of those works so compelling vocally and emotionally that there is no question of hitting the repeat button, probably more than once. The disc concludes with a Mass, the Missa Amor ecco colei, with divided soprano and tenor parts. It’s a magnificent example of Lasso’s facility for word-setting integrated with interesting melodic ideas and rich, vibrant harmonies.
Of course, the vitality and expressive effect of these works owes much to the dozen (more or less) singers of The Brabant Ensemble, a young-voiced British group that specializes in Renaissance sacred music. The sound is closer to the warm, multi-hued glint of The Sixteen than to the Tallis Scholars’ more austere, primary colored quality. But whatever your preference, these singers never fail to make beautiful music, attending to each element of form, substance, texture, and text to enliven and enlighten our experience of these often surprising, deeply affecting works. Highly recommended.
-- David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com
Stephen Rice has focused his attention on the mid 16th century so completely (the Chirk Partbooks were an exception) that it is gratifying to hear the late-Renaissance master here. That is not because there is anything wrong with his previous choices, but rather because even with Orlandus Lassus he has chosen to give us an unrecorded Mass and some unfamiliar short pieces, along with the more familiar Sibylline Prophecies. The last is enhanced by an intelligent approach to clefs and transposition, furnishing a new sense of tonality running through the 13 movements. He explains this most lucidly in his notes, which are a model of concision and clarity, admirably persuasive to anyone who is impatient with music theory. We heard an interesting version of the work just recently from Manfred Cordes (
33: 6), but in contrast all the works on this disc are unaccompanied and sung uninterrupted.
By my count this Mass is the 26th of the composer’s Masses to be recorded, still only half the total. Set for six voices in his usual SSATTB voicing, it is a parody Mass on an unidentified piece, perhaps a villanella by Prospero Caetano, indicative of the gorgeous music we have yet to hear among the unrecorded Masses of Lassus. The Magnificat, based on a madrigal (
Quant’in mille anni il ciel
) by a little-known contemporary, is undoubtedly a first recording, for so few of the composer’s hundred settings of the canticle have been recorded that this distinctively identified piece would have shown up in the catalogs. I must find the time to do a Lassus discography (and Palestrina, too); the new edition of the motets (21 volumes!) should make it easier than before. The three motets here include the familiar Holy Week responsory,
Tristis est anima mea
, recorded by Jeffrey Skidmore (20:2) among others, and
, recorded by John Eliot Gardiner (30:5) among others, but
Deficiat in dolore
appears to be new to records. The three motets share a mournful or elegiac mood in which each reinforces the others as a group.
Rice has never disappointed in any of his recordings. A brilliant interpreter, he is working with sympathetic colleagues who help him bring unfamiliar music to life. You will want this disc for the novelties, but you will not regret the addition of the Sibylline Prophecies to any version you already own.
FANFARE: J. F. Weber
The very opening of the
Prophetiae Sibyllarum is enough to
make the listener prick up his ears. De Lassus out-Gesualdos Gesualdo with the most astonishingly adventurous sequence of chord changes which both unsettles and intrigues. Those like me previously familiar with Gesualdo’s eerie harmonic side-steps and descending chromatic figures but unfamiliar with the
Prophetiae Sibyllarum will be amazed to learn that this music was composed at least six years before the tortured Prince of Venosa was born. The programme notes inform us that Charles IX of France was so “ravished” by that Prologue that he determined to employ de Lassus at all costs.
Those notes, written by the Musical Director himself, Stephen Rice, are informative and scholarly, although perhaps a little too technical for the casual listener. There is some quite detailed elucidation of the understanding of Greek musical theory in the first half of the sixteenth century; the discussion of the relative merits of the diatonic, chromatic and enharmonic genera apparently attracted much debate and excited controversy. It seems that de Lassus was content to employ them all severally and in combination – which is probably all we need to know. I for one would have appreciated a little more commentary on the Sibylline texts as they are an intriguing mixture of piety and sensuous imagery.
Although some purists insist that such music should and indeed only can be properly performed with only one voice per part, I welcome the sonority achieved by Stephen Rice in using about three singers per line. It lends the polyphony richness without obscuring the words or becoming texturally overloaded.
The Brabant Ensemble maintains impeccable intonation and steadiness of line. The balance between the vocal lines is beautifully judged. They sing without employing vibrato and although half the ensemble is made up of women’s voices, they sound more like a first-rate boys’ choir. The recording acoustic is superb, with just enough resonance to create the sense of a sacred space.
My only reservation concerns the lack of variety in the programme. To my ears there is a certain uniform consonance of mood and musical tropes in this music, exquisitely though it is sung. However, the motets in particular provide some ethereally beautiful moments, such as the opening of
Iustorum animae. De Lassus particularly liked to exploit the contrast engineered by first allowing the two upper lines to soar a fifth apart, then sliding the deep bass line underneath, as it were, to create a great chordal span of sound.
In his day, de Lassus was more celebrated than his contemporary Palestrina and even more prolific, although today their relative pre-eminence is reversed. This disc is typically representative of the Brabant Ensemble’s intention to record and promulgate somewhat lesser-known music from the first half of the sixteenth century. Devotees of the period will welcome its austere, otherworldly beauty.
-- Ralph Moore, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Prophetiae Sibyllarum by Orlando de Lassus
Written: 16th Century; Germany
Justorum animae by Orlando de Lassus
Deficiat in dolore vita by Orlando de Lassus
Written: Munich, Germany
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