Hans Leo HASSLER (1564-1612)
Missa Octava [16:39]
Cantate Domino, for 4 voices (1601) [1:37]
Psalm 119, for 5 voices (1607) [5:08]
Laetentur Coeli, for 4 voices (1601) [1:43]
Dixit Maria, for 4 voices (1591) [2:55]
Pater Noster, for 8 voices (1597) [2:56]
Laudate Dominum, for 4 voices (1612) [2:07]
Verbum Caro Factum Est, for 6 voices (1591) [2:35]
Octava Ensemble/Zygmunt Magiera
rec. Church of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Kraków, Poland, January 2011. DDD
DUX 0750 [37:59]

Before even considering the content of this CD, the potential buyer is fully entitled to wonder how Polish label DUX can justify an embarrassingly short playing time for what is an unashamedly full-price product. 38 minutes? In fact, DUX have done this before with the Octava Ensemble, just a couple of years back - see review. That whole 43-minute CD could have been squeezed onto this one alongside Hassler!

Except for those with money to burn, then, the music and performers will need to be pretty special to make up for all the empty disc space being charged for. The good news is, Hans Leo Hassler certainly fits the description as one of Germany's most significant composers: though undoubtedly a conservative in some regards, Hassler embraced innovation and had a major influence on musical development in Germany. A double CD of his works released only a few months ago by EtCetera was well received - see this review, which also provides handy background information about him.

Aside from the quality of the music, conceptually the Octava Ensemble's programme is original. The Missa Octava, sometimes referred to as the Missa Octo Vocum - it is tautological to refer to it, as the track listing does, as 'Missa Octava a 8' - is for two SATB quartets and consists of five sections: the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus-Benedictus and Agnus Dei. The special interest lies in the intercalation between the sections of the Mass of the remaining items on the disc, various motets by Hassler, as follows (Mass sections indicated in italics):

Ecce Sacerdos Magnus
Introitus: Cantate Domino
Graduale: Psalm 119: Ad Dominum cum Tribularer
Offertorium: Laetentur Coeli - Dixit Maria
Sanctus - Benedictus
Pater Noster
Agnus Dei
Communio: Laudate Dominum
Ite Missa est: Verbum Caro Factum est

The Octava Ensemble justify this ordering with the explanation that the CD "observes the order of liturgical chants performed during the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite" (the so-called 'Tridentine Mass'). Of course, the tracks can easily be programmed on a CD player to play the five sections of the Mass side by side and the other pieces separately - that works rather nicely, in fact.

DUX's sound is usually reliable, and here the quality is good, albeit with one major caveat: the sopranos are set too far back and at times their words are very difficult to understand. That is a pity, because the sopranos seem to have fine voices, and in general the Octava Ensemble sing well. But there are problems with individual voices that need to be flagged up, chiefly that the altos seem under-rehearsed. Part of the problem may be that one is female, one male, but the fact is, the male especially has some technique issues that need to be addressed - most notably the fact that his intonation is sometimes off the mark. As a knock-on effect, the blend of voices often seems to jar slightly.

Enunciation is good where perfectly audible, and attention to prosody fair. With regard to pronunciation, the Octava Ensemble likewise commit relatively few sins. Those with a knowledge of Classical Latin will cringe at certain pronunciations of Latin texts whoever is singing them; singing groups often seem to copy each other regardless of whether a pronunciation was ever justified in the first place. As far as Octava are concerned, the main clash for English ears will be the Germanic/Polish 'ts' for all 'c's, but at least that is hardly more grating than the 'ch' sound that turns up constantly, admittedly not without some justification, in the pronunciation of 'ce' and 'ci', and at least there is appropriately fortis consonant articulation here. The pronunciation of 'laetentur coeli' as 'let-ten-toor tsell-ee' may occasion little rejoicing of the heavens, but how 'ae' should be sung, whether of Latin or Greek origin, is probably a dead horse that it is pointless to flog.

The CD booklet is of high quality, both physically - glossy, thick, with a striking design - and in terms of being informative. The notes are in Polish and English, the latter passably well translated from the former, although the tone is slightly pretentious - such as referring to the CD as a "record" or the repeated use of ellipsis points. Full texts are thoughtfully included in Latin, Polish and English. No track timings are given.

Collected reviews and contact at reviews.gramma.co.uk

Though undoubtedly conservative Hassler’s music is pretty special. Shame about the short running time.