Orlando di LASSO (1532-1594)
Prophetiae Sibyllarum [26.13]
Omnes de Saba venient a 8 [2.24]
Ierusalem, plantabis vineam a 5 [4.08]
Sidus ex claro veniens Olympo a 5 [3.51]
Cum natus esset Iesus a 6 [9.45]
Descendit sicut pluvial a 5 [4.38]
Mirabile Mysterium a 5 [3.32]
Verbum caro factum est a 6 [2.54]
Iubilemus singuli a 6 [3.00]
Resonet in laudibus a 5 [4.06]
Weser-Renaissance Bremen/Manfred Cordes
rec. Stiftskirche Bassum, 7-9 January 2009
CPO 777 468-2 [64.44] 

Lassus’s Prophetiae Sibyllarum is a curious work; neither the work’s date nor the circumstances of composition are known. So what we have is a collection of twelve pieces plus prologue, setting the sibylline prophecies. It seems to have been written specifically for Duke Albrecht of Bavaria and but wasn’t published in his lifetime. The texts are not specifically religious, but by the middle ages the prophecies of the ancient Sibyls were perceived to pre-figure the coming of Christ and found their way into liturgies.
For his settings Lassus used the chromatic mode, setting the test generally homophonically. The results have the sort of instability that we associate with Gesualdo, though without his biting dissonances.
They are performed by Weser-Renaissance Bremen using four singers accompanied by harp; the disposition of the voice types varies as Lassus used different clefs for different pieces. The key to the group’s performances comes from the fact that they chose to accompany the sibylline prophecies with a group of Lassus’s Christmas motets. In fact the prophecies and the motets are interleaved.
True, the rather strange harmonic sound-world of the prophecies can get a little wearing, but these are not motets; they are madrigals albeit ones of a slightly sacred nature. On their 1994 disc of the sibylline prophecies, Cantus Cölln accompany them with a selection of madrigals; surely the correct way to go.
Though the performances here are nicely sung and tidily presented, they do not really convey the music’s fascination and curiosity. The vocal performances are cool, with a nice sense of line. But the singers are neither as perfect as some UK ensembles nor as vibrant as some continental ones. They seem to sit in the middle.

The words of the prophecies are curious and intense, but this intensity does not emerge here. The singers could make a great deal more of the words than they do.
The motets are admirably performed with a mixed vocal and instrumental choir which no doubt reflects the practice of Lassus’s time and shows that Manfred Cordes and his group have their hearts in the right place. That said I did find the balance tended to favour the wind instruments a little too much. They open with an eight-part motet, Omnes de Saba, performed very grandly by the entire ensemble of six singers, cornet, two trombones, two violas da gamba, dulcian and harp. But the five part Ierusalem, plantabis vineam is done as an alto solo (Franz Vitzthum) with cornet, trombone and two gambas; Descendit sicut pluvial is similarly performed. But Mirabile Mysterium and Verbum caro factum form fascinating dialogues as two lines of the motets are taken by voices with the remainder on instruments.
The booklet includes full texts and translations.
This is one of those discs which I wanted to like more than I did. Cordes and his musicians fall just short of bringing these pieces to life. Put this disc on and there is a real danger that you might dismiss the music out of hand.  

Robert Hugill
Cordes and his musicians fall just short of bringing these pieces to life.