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Orlandus LASSUS (1532 -1594)
Penitential Psalms - complete
CD 1 [71.49]
No. 1 Domine, ne infurore tuo (Psalm 6) [13.59]
No. 2 Beati quorum remissae sunt [18.52]
No. 3 Domine, ne in furore tuo [27.14]
Laudate Psalms [11.10]
CD 2 [70.40]
No. 4 Miserere Deus [20.43]
No. 5 Domine, exaudi orationem meum, et clamor [25.26]
No. 6 De profundis clamavi ad te [8.45]
No. 7 Domine, exaudi orationem meam, auribus [15.05]
Henry’s Eight
rec. St. Jude on the Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, 27-31 August 1997
HYPERION DYAD CDD 22056 [71.49 + 70.40]

Hyperion originally launched this double album in 1997 when the all-male group Henry’s Eight were still relatively new and little known. Although there is no doubt that they have moved on even further from this impressive achievement, and the music has probably matured in their system, if you failed to pick this disc up on first issue then you should certainly not fail to do so now. These works constitute some of the greatest choral pieces of the period and amongst them are quite a number of masterpieces.

But what are these Penitential Psalms? And for whom were they written.

The latter question first. Duke Albert V of Bavaria for whom Lassus worked around 1560 was apparently so moved by their beauty that he had them especially copied onto parchment and illustrated with miniatures.

We are here offered all seven of the Psalms on two CDs (for the price of one) with the two Laudate Psalms - the psalms of praise - that is Psalms 148 and 150 - added as an extra at the end of CD 1. Each is in a different mode and the mode corresponds to the mood of the psalm. All of this is clearly explained in the brilliant booklet notes by Jon Dixon. To give a couple of examples: the first psalm is in the Dorian mode basically D-D slightly sombre being mostly akin to our D minor and very suitable for the text ‘O Lord rebuke me not in thine anger’. The second psalm, ‘Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven’ is therefore in the lighter Hypodorian mode A-A, which Lassus transposes up a fourth. This continues up to Psalm 78 which is in the mixolydian mode i.e. G-G, the 7th and last Penitential psalm ‘Hear my Prayer O God’.

In the Laudate Psalms Lassus completes the symmetry by setting them in Mode 8, the hypomixolydian mode, which is C-C. This obviously suits the mood required by the words.

The psalms are suitable for the Advent and also the Lenten periods culminating in Holy Week. For example the Seventh Psalm is sung at Lauds (the first service of the day) on Good Friday. Some psalms are also therefore suitable for burial services and Requiems. Except for the Laudate Psalms the mood is generally sombre and emotional throughout. The structure of the music is in a similar pattern. Each psalm is divided into sets of double verses and each comes to a full cadence with a brief silence before the next two lines. Lassus needs therefore to create contrast. This he does by allowing tutti passages to contrast with duets and trio sections. Some sections are set in strict polyphony with much close imitation and other sections set more homophonically. The Glorias will be tutti, often in six parts. With a huge structure like the third Psalm these contrasts are particularly important both for the listener and for the performer. Speaking of the singers, considerable stamina is involved and there is a constant need to consider dynamics and to a certain extent pacing. This is where I find Henry’s Eight to be so successful. A close hearing of this huge psalm will display such care as in the words beginning ‘Afflictus sum’, ‘I am feeble and sore broken’ and ‘Ego autem’, ‘But I as deaf man, heard not’.

This brings us to the subject of Lassus’s word-painting, or, as Jonathan Brown in another very interesting booklet essay describes it ‘word sensitivity’, a rough translation of the renaissance term ‘musica reservata’. Brown gives various examples such as the "disjointed portrayal of the words ‘and let my cry come unto thee’ with upward leaps in all parts to the top of vocal ranges". It is unnecessary to say more in this review but I need to add that mostly Henry’s Eight bring these moments out wonderfully too.

Recently I reviewed a volume of these psalms recorded by an all-male choir including boys, the Tolzer Knabenchor (Capriccio 67 130). I commented, in that review, that there are "woodcuts of Lassus at work ... and there is also an illustration by Nikolaus Solis of the Wedding Banquet in the George-Saal in Munich with, in the foreground Lassus surrounded by members of the ‘Kapelle’ and it is interesting to notice that there are boys, an organ, sackbuts, a bass viol and a handful of men and quite a few strings". In other words Lassus is just about to present his music with voices and instruments and this is how the Capriccio version allows us to hear it. It is an impressive sound and I think a truly authentic one. Henry’s Eight are entirely a capella in the true English Oxbridge tradition. The German choral sound is very continental and the intonation of the boys - who also sing a gloriously vibrato alto - seems to strain at times, possibly as they came to the end of the recording session. Henry’s Eight have no such trouble but have sterilized the music for the British taste; surely Lassus should not always sound like Byrd. What do you think? Anyway I can’t at this moment say which version I prefer. You could incidentally also consider the Hilliard Ensemble at a lower pitch (all male) on Virgin (61216). They are accompanied by Kees Boeke’s mixed instrumental ensemble. Another advantage of the Capriccio disc is that the verses are indexed meaning that the long fifth psalm has twenty-five index points within track two.

So I will try to sum up. There is some superb singing on these CDs and everything is thoughtfully interpreted. I have reservations about whether or not I am hearing the music as it was intended to be heard, but does it matter? Great music always wins through and that is certainly the case in all three of these versions but Henry’s Eight will not disappoint you.

Gary Higginson



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