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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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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