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Orlandus LASSUS (1532-1594)
Penitential Psalm No.1 (Psalm 6) [13:59]
Penitential Psalm No.2 (Psalm 32) [18:52]
Penitential Psalm No.3 (Psalm 38) [27:14]
Laudate Psalms (Psalms 148 and 51) [11:10]
Penitential Psalm No.4 (Psalm 51) [20:43]
Penitential Psalm No.5 (Psalm 102) [25:26]
Penitential Psalm No.6 (Psalm 130) [8:45]
Penitential Psalm No.7 (Psalm 143) [15:09]
Henry’s Eight: (Declan Costello, William Towers (counter-tenor); Duncan Byrne, Nicholas Todd, Nicholas Yates (tenor); Damian O’Keefe, Giles Underwood, Robert-Jan Temminck (bass))/Jonathan Brown (director)
rec. 27-31 August 1997, St- Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London
HYPERION DYAD CDD22056 [71:49 + 70:40]

Lassus’s settings of the seven Penitential Psalms were written at the time of the composer’s move from Antwerp to Munich (around 1560), at the behest of his new employer, Albrecht V, Duke of Bavaria. The settings were immediately – and rightly – much admired. So much so that Albrecht appears to have treated them as a particularly valuable possession, retaining the manuscript scores in the Schatzkammer, the official repository for especially valuable items in his palace at Neuveste. These manuscripts were lavishly produced, beautifully illuminated by the court painter Hans Mielich. The humanist Samuel van Quickelberg, who also worked at the court in Munich, prepared two extensive manuscript commentaries on the music and the miniatures. Albrecht, in short, held these works in the very highest regard.  It was only after the death of Albrecht that these settings were eventually published, in 1584. It is possible – perhaps probable – that these wonderful settings were primarily (or exclusively?) performed in private, as part of the devotions of the Duke. If so, then this would have implications as to how we might perform them now – as to the appropriate scale and acoustic, the size of performance forces etc. Should instrumental support be employed?
Good recordings by the Pro Cantione Antiqua (DG Archiv) and the Hilliard Ensemble (Virgin 61216) both use instrumental ensembles alongside the adult male voices of their vocal forces. The recording directed by Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden (Capriccio 67 130) uses boys’ voices as well as adult voices and, again, instrumental support. Henry’s Eight choose to perform the work entirely a capella, and with a certain intimacy. There are arguments to be made on both sides – how far this was private music, how far it was ‘public’. It isn’t a choice which we, as listeners, have to make in any kind of absolutist fashion; we can listen to, and be moved by, a range of different performance strategies. If I had to make a choice, my own preference, in this particular music, would be for the approach adopted by Henry’s Eight.
The Penitential Psalms are remarkable, above all, for the subtlety and vividness of their setting of text, and the unaccompanied voices of Henry’s Eight make the details of Lassus’s musical/rhetorical responsiveness to language audible with winning clarity. Henry’s Eight sing with a fine understanding of how Lassus’s music interprets the Psalm texts and a willingness to employ contrasts of tempo, timbre and rhythm in the service of an articulation of these marvels of word-setting. One might, perhaps, have imagined a reading which would have pursued such contrasts even more aggressively, but Henry’s Eight contain them within an overall concern for beauty of sound, a sound very firmly derived from the English choral tradition – which fact won’t, of course, recommend them to all listeners.
But to listen, for example, to the sheer beauty of the slow and sombre opening to the first Psalm or to the wonderful six-part conclusion of the third is to be moved and to be struck with wonder at the greatness of this music.
These Psalm settings – Lassus added to the seven Penitential Psalms a remarkable setting of two Laudate Psalms, balancing and varying the mood of the whole – are amongst the great works of the Renaissance choral tradition. Given the sheer quality of the music and the number of interpretative doubts surrounding it, it would be wrong to expect to find a ‘definitive’ recording of the sequence (any more than one expects there to be a single definitive recording of, say, Beethoven’s Ninth). But, at the very least, this present recording is one that says important things about – and through – the music, things which have their own distinctive validity.
Glyn Pursglove



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