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Hans Leo Hassler / Missa Octava Ensemble

Release Date: 10/25/2011 
Label:  Dux Records   Catalog #: 750  
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

HASSLER Missa Octava. Ecce sacerdos magnus. Cantate Domino. Ad dominum cum tribularer. Laetentur coeli. Dixit Maria. Pater noster. Laudate Dominum. Verbum caro factum est Octava Ens DUX 0750 (37:58 Text and Translation)

In Fanfare 35:2 I discussed the various sacred and secular works of Hans Leo Hassler that came out on a disc performed by Currende, lamenting that not much music by this composer had been recorded in the last Read more decade or so. Now a Polish a cappella group of eight singers, the Octava Ensemble of Krakow, has come forth with an entire Mass, the Missa Octava , which they have produced complete, with both the Ordinary and the Proper, each in its (ahem!) proper place. Does this herald a looming Hassler Renaissance?

Hassler, one of Gabrieli’s students and an admirer of Lasso (as I wrote previously), was appointed as a private organist to Octavian II Frugger, a very wealthy merchant in Augsburg, where he thrived until 1600, eventually winding up in Nuremberg. The Mass appears to have been written for Catholic Augsburg at a time when the Protestant Hassler could count on a rather more ecumenical position than confronted his junior colleague Heinrich Schütz a generation later. Of the works for the Proper, all were written about the same period, but whether or not they actually belonged to the entire service, such as this recording intimates, is anyone’s guess. No matter; they all form a nice whole that at least gives an idea of what the worship services of important families such as the Fruggers expected during the last years of the 16th century.

The music itself is extremely Tridentine. The eight-voice Ordinary usually begins each movement with either a chant incipit or an imitative scaffolding line. The linear counterpoint is carefully contrived, with sections of imitation and canon juxtaposed onto episodes of homophony. The Kyrie, with its gently falling lines in the Christe, is quite ethereal. In the Credo, the Et incarnatus est is solidly homophonic, as if one can hear the steady tread of Christ’s life heading in slow steps toward the cross. The joyous use of a trippy dance rhythm in the Et vitam venturi saeculi seems to give hope for the resurrection and salvation of all. The works of the Proper are quite different. The graduale, a setting of Psalm 119, which admonishes one to call upon God during times of tribulation, has a gnarly ascending chromatic line, with close and often harsh dissonances that are reminiscent of Gesualdo, while the offertory, Laetentur coeli, seem like it is right out of a book of secular madrigals. Even the work’s only plagal cadence doesn’t disguise the worldly nature of the piece. One should, of course, recognize that such a combination of conservative and secularized church music did not originate with Hassler, but it does provide for a nice series of works with changeable mood.

The Octava Ensemble handles the various vocal combinations of four to eight parts with ease. Like a number of excellent groups today, the members are perfectly in tune (in all senses of that word) with each other, blending easily and without difficulty in terms of texture and interpretation. Indeed, the ensemble is a perfect means of presenting Hassler’s often intricate lines and rhythms. I do have two quibbles, however. First, there is no indication on my copy of how long the disc actually is. This may be because the overall timing I measured came out to only 38 minutes, which is pretty short for a recording nowadays. The second quibble is that the program notes seem extremely perfunctory. The history is oddly presented, and the music of the various movements of the Proper are not discussed at all. Moreover, it is in a two-parallel-column approach, one of which is in Polish. The text of the works is trilingual (since they are in Latin), but again one might think that in the interests of publicity another international language would have been added. Still, despite these issues, the disc reflects another excellent performance, once more showing that any late Renaissance or early Baroque collection cannot be complete without Hassler.

FANFARE: Bertil van Boer
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