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. Palestrina’s 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 Palestrina’s 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 Cardinall’s
Musick, taking time out from their on-going
series of Byrd Gradualia, have produced
a fine recital of Lassus’s 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 Lassus’s 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 Lassus’s settings of texts
from the Song of Songs and the Cardinall’s
Musick have used this as a fine excuse
to include a number of other motets
based on texts from the same source.
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 Lassus’s posthumous
8-part Magnificat; Vespers was an important
service in the Duke’s 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 Cardinall’s Musick. Carwood’s
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 ‘cool’ English one.
In addition I did wonder whether the
sound Carwood was aiming for owed something
to the open, ‘continental’ 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
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 Cardinall’s Musick might consider
making this the start of a short series.