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Orlandus LASSUS (c.1532 - 1594)
Quam pulchra es
Veni in hortum meum
Surge propera amica mea
Missa surge propera
Tota pulchra es
Osculetur me
Vulnerasti cor meum
Veni dilecte mi
Magnificat quarti toni

The Cardinalls Music (Carys Lane (soprano), Rebecca Outram (soprano), David Clegg (alto), Patrick Craig (alto), Julian Stocker (tenor), Nathan Vale (tenor), Simon Wall (tenor), Robert Evans (baritone), Robert MacDonald (bass), Michael McCarthy (bass))/Andrew Carwood
Recorded 15-17 April 2002, Fitzalan Chapel, Arundel Castle.
GAUDEAMUS CD GAU 310 [63.36]


It is sometimes rather difficult to get to grips with the outputs of renaissance composers like Lassus and Palestrina who wrote such copious quantities of music. Palestrinaís masses and motets display a suave way with melody which makes them very grateful to sing. However a listener not fully engaged can rather naughtily wonder whether, lovely though they are, many Palestrina masses sound the same.

With Lassus, the case is different. Though he might sometimes lack Palestrinaís melodic gifts, he is more interested in harmony and texture, using harmonic effects to point the text and heighten dramatic effect.

On this disc, the Cardinallís Musick, taking time out from their on-going series of Byrd Gradualia, have produced a fine recital of Lassusís sacred music. The centre-piece is the Missa surge propera. The mass dates from 1577; all but one of the pieces on the disc dates from Lassusís long period as Kapellmeister to the Duke of Bavaria in Munich. This is a parody mass, based on the motet of the same name. Surge Propera is one of Lassusís settings of texts from the Song of Songs and the Cardinallís Musick have used this as a fine excuse to include a number of other motets based on texts from the same source.

Palestrina published his settings of the Song of Songs in a single comprehensive volume, though Palestrina later apparently went on to regret his excursion into the rather heady atmosphere of the Song of Songs. Lassus simply dipped into the book at various times in his career, picking out some of the finest texts. The disc includes all seven of his motets from this source, apparently for the first time. The motets cover quite a time period, from 1562 to 1604. In the last motet, Tota pulchra est, Lassus seems to have assembled a group of appealing verses without recourse to liturgical requirements. The disc is completed with Lassusís posthumous 8-part Magnificat; Vespers was an important service in the Dukeís chapel and this rather grand setting is one of a great many that Lassus wrote for the occasion.

These works are given in a fine, well modulated performance by the Cardinallís Musick. Carwoodís direction never shocks and he encourages his singers into performances of great style and subtlety. Many people will be very happy with the style and high musicianship displayed here.

And yet I could not help feeling a little dissatisfied. The choir sing one to a part quite admirably and seem to be aiming at a rather more intense, open, continental sound. There have in recent years been a number of records of this repertoire from Italian groups which point up the big difference between the aims of performers in the two countries; with the Italians giving us a more passionate style of delivery rather than the Ďcoolí English one. In addition I did wonder whether the sound Carwood was aiming for owed something to the open, Ďcontinentalí sound famously favoured by Westminster Cathedral.

None of this is bad in itself. But, though individual performers inflect the vocal line with some subtlety, I found that overall the performance lacked variation in colour and tone; that at times the overall effect was monochrome, albeit superbly sophisticated. There are, perhaps, a number of contributing factors. First of all, the sound of the ensemble is very soprano-led, overly so in my opinion. The passages where the upper voices were silent gain in colour and depth. Also I would have liked a little more air, more resonance round the recording. I realise that these comments might seem rather picky to some people; after all the ideal choral sound can be a very personal thing.

Another point that made me wonder was one of language. The singers use the standard Italianate English church Latin, which is perfectly acceptable. But nowadays, people in Munich use German pronunciation for Latin and it might have been interesting to have experimented with this.

My comments notwithstanding, there is music making of a very high order on this disc. I would urge anyone interested in the music of Lassus to buy it. And let us hope that Gaudeamus and the Cardinallís Musick might consider making this the start of a short series.

Robert Hugill

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