Hans-Leo HASSLER (1564-1612)
Sacred and secular music
Full track listing at end of review

Currende/Erik Van Nevel
rec. 1999 and 2000, Klein Begijnhof, Ghent, Belgium. DDD
ET'CETERA KTC 1409 [75:14 + 67:11]

Hans-Leo Hassler worked almost his whole life in southern Germany, which in the second half of the 16th century was one of the cultural hubs of Europe. He was born in Nuremberg, son of an organist, and had two brothers who also became musicians. They were all trained as organists, and all three were connected for some time with the influential and wealthy Fugger family. Although they were also active as composers only Hans-Leo Hassler wrote compositions in almost any genre in vogue at the time. The two discs to be reviewed here give a broad survey of his oeuvre which comprises sacred works in Latin and in German, secular vocal pieces on German and Italian texts as well as instrumental music.

Hassler received his first music lessons from his father. At the time Leonhard Lechner, pupil of Orlandus Lassus, was archimusicus in Nuremberg. It seems likely he had some influence on the young Hassler, although there is no firm evidence that he was ever Lechner's pupil. In 1584 Hassler went to Venice where he became a pupil of Andrea Gabrieli. He also became acquainted with Giovanni Gabrieli and with Claudio Merulo, one of Italy's greatest organ virtuosos. He didn't stay for long though, as in 1585 Andrea Gabrieli died and Hassler returned to Germany. In Augsburg he took up the position of Cammerorganist of one of the members of the Fugger family. It is with this family that he was connected almost his entire life. In 1608 he moved to Dresden where he first became chamber organist and then took up the duties of Kapellmeister. Soon he was hit by tuberculosis which caused his death in 1612.

The influence of what Hassler had heard and learned in Venice is noticeable in his music. Several pieces are set for eight voices in two groups, like Hertzlich lieb hab ich dich, Dum complerentur dies Pentecostes and O Domine Jesu Christe. In his motets for six parts Hassler also makes use of the cori spezzati technique in that he splits the six voices into high and low 'choirs'. Examples are Deus, Deus meus and Vincula dum Christus terit. Even in his secular music he makes use of this procedure, as in Schöns Lieb, du machst mir angst and Musica è lo mio core.

At the end of the 16th century there was a growing amount of text expression. That is clearly noticeable in the music of Orlandus Lassus, and this disc contains various examples of Hassler fitting in with this fashion. A telling example is the joyful motet Exsultate Deo, but also Ad Dominum cum tribularer. The opening phrase - "In my distress I cried to the Lord" - is set to a chromatically ascending figure, and the closing line - "and a deceitful tongue" - is dominated by a chromatically descending figure.

The multi-religious landscape in the region where Hassler worked is reflected in his oeuvre which comprises pieces for the Roman Catholic liturgy as well as compositions which reflect the liturgical reforms of Martin Luther. The latter aspect comes to the fore in the pieces which open and close the first disc. Hertzlich lieb hab ich dich is one of the most famous German protestant hymns. The last stanza, 'Ach Herr, laß dein liebe Engelein' was used by Bach at the end of his St John Passion. Another Passion hymn is O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß. It is first performed here in the form of a harmonisation, and then as a polyphonic motet. Auß tieffer noth is a chorale melody which was composed by Martin Luther himself. Here the stanzas 1, 4, 5 and 6 are performed; two of them with one voice group (tenors and sopranos respectively) singing the cantus firmus, with the instruments taking the other parts. Another Passion hymn turns up where one wouldn't expect it: Mein Gmüth ist mir verwirret was later to be used for the famous text O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden.

The secular part of this recording is equally interesting. There is quite a lot of text expression, and the madrigals by Hassler are often no less expressive than those of his Italian contemporaries. That is the case, for instance, in Schöns Lieb, du machst mir angst (Sweet love, you frighten and hurt me) and Von dir kann ich nicht scheyden (I cannot leave you).The Italian madrigals O dolci lagrimette (O sweet tears) and Vettene pur crudel (Away, cruelty) are of the same calibre. A title like Lustgarten (pleasure garden), as a collection of secular pieces of 1601 was called, suggests light-heartedness. The exalted Tantzen und springen certainly belongs to that category, but the above-mentioned Mein Gmüth ist mir verwirret most definitely does not: "My mind is all confused, and the cause is a sweet maiden". The Canzonette of 1590 are also less cheerful than one might expect: "I feel - alas! - that I am dying", "I fled through woods, forests and across mountains (...) so as not to feel Cupid's sharp arrows" and "O you who gives me pain". The last of this group is more like a 'light vocal piece', as New Grove defines a canzonetta. It is a joyful pastoral song: "May the shepherds always live among delightful and sweet Cupids".

The variety and consistently excellent quality of Hassler's oeuvre is impressively demonstrated by this recording. The sacred pieces are performed by the vocal ensemble which comprises twenty singers. As the track-list gives no information about which musician participates in the various pieces I can't tell whether they were all involved in every piece. But given the fact that chapels in the south of Germany were mostly not small a performance with more than one voice per part seems plausible. The extensive use of instruments is also justified; they give support to the voices or replace some of them. The ensemble is quite colourful, with recorder, cornett, three sackbuts, two renaissance violins, two viols, violone, lute, theorbo, organ and percussion. They also participate in the secular pieces, which are mostly sung with one voice per part. That is a most sensible decision: these pieces are meant to be sung at home and in social gatherings, and a choir would be inappropriate here. Only the acoustic in the secular repertoire could have been more intimate: the reverberation is a bit too large.

The level of the performances is high: the singing and playing is excellent. The delivery is as good as one can expect in polyphony. Erik Van Nevel has found the right approach to this repertoire in regard to dynamics and articulation: there is less legato singing than is necessary in earlier music. There is also more dynamic gradation and more attention to specific elements in the text, but not so much as to suggest that this is a kind of 'baroque' music.

There are only a couple of disappointments in these performances. Nos autem populus ejus is the second part of the motet Jubilate Deo, omnis terra. It would have been better to perform the whole motet, and it should have been mentioned in the booklet that it is only partially performed. The same can be said of the hymn Auß tieffer noth. Likewise the second part of the madrigal Vattene pur crudel has been omitted, again without making mention of it. It is also difficult to justify the Italian pronunciation of Latin in the motets.

But those are very minor blots on a production which deserves the full attention of every lover of renaissance music. The booklet omits recording dates, and as the discs give 2010 as the year of production and copyright one may think that these are recent recordings. But a look into the catalogue of my local public library revealed that these discs were first released separately by the small Belgian label Eufoda in 1999 and 2000 respectively. That may have been the reason they have never received the attention they most certainly deserve. At that time very little of Hassler's music was available on disc, and unfortunately little has changed since. This production underlines Hassler's importance and the variety and quality of his output.

Johan van Veen

This production underlines Hassler's importance and the variety and quality of his output.

Full track listing:

CD 1
Hertzlich lieb hab ich dich (1607) [6:33]
O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß (1607) [5:45]
Deus, Deus meus (1591) [3:27]
Exsultate Deo (1601/12) [2:39]
Veni, Sancte Spiritus (1601/12) [2:35]
Hodie completi sunt dies Pentecostes (1601/12) [3:59]
Dum complerentur dies Pentecostes (1591) [3:03]
Nunc dimittis servum tuum (1591) [3:56]
Vincula dum Christus terit (1591) [3:38]
Ricercar in G (organ) (1591) [2:38]
Ricercar in C (organ) (1591) [2:52]
Ad Dominum, cum tribularer (1601/12) [4:02]
Laudem dicite Deo nostro (1601/12) [2:38]
Nos autem populus ejus (1591) [3:08]
O Domine Jesu Christe (1601/12) [3:57]
O sacrum convivium (1601/12) [3:38]
Domine, Deus meus (1601/12) [5:57]
Auß tieffer noth schrey ich zu dir (1607) [9:36]

CD 2
Intrada I (1601) [1:47]
Intrada II (1601) [1:45]
Intrada III (1601) [1:17]
Intrada IV (1601) [1:53]
Intrada VII (1601) [0:53]
Nun fanget an ein guts Liedlein zu singen (1596) [3:24]
Schöns Lieb, du macht mir angst (1596) [3:36]
Feinslieb, du hast mich gfangen (1596) [2:44]
Herzlieb, zu dir allein (1596) [1:31]
Von dir kan ich nicht scheyden (1596) [2:19]
Canzona (1601/12) [4:47]
Musica è lo mio core (1596) [4:08]
Tessea catena d'oro (1596) [3:18]
O dolci lagrimette (1596) [3:21]
Vattene pur crudel (1596) [2:38]
Care lagrime mie (1596) [3:59]
Mein Gmüth ist mir verwirret (1601) [4:42]
Tantzen und springen (1601) [2:15]
Mi sento ohimé morire (1590) [4:24]
Fuggendo andai per boschi (1590) [2:03]
O tu che mi dai pene (1590) [3:33]
Vivan sempre i pastori (1590) [4:02]
Intrada V (1601) [1:29]
Gagliarde (1601) [1:00]