Orlande de LASSUS (1530/32 – 1594)
Prophetiae Sibyllarum [29:15]
Magnificat Quant’in mille anni il ciel [9:26]
Iustorum animae [3:16]
Deficiat in dolore vita mea [4:08]
Tristis est anima mea [4:48]
Missa amor ecco colei [23 :17]
The Brabant Ensemble/Stephen Rice
rec. 3-5 September 2010, Chapel of Harcourt Hill campus, Oxford Brookes University. Oxford.
HYPERION CDA67887 [74:14]

The very opening of the Prophetiae Sibyllarum is enough to make the listener prick up his ears. De Lassus out-Gesualdos Gesualdo with the most astonishingly adventurous sequence of chord changes which both unsettles and intrigues. Those like me previously familiar with Gesualdo’s eerie harmonic side-steps and descending chromatic figures but unfamiliar with the Prophetiae Sibyllarum will be amazed to learn that this music was composed at least six years before the tortured Prince of Venosa was born. The programme notes inform us that Charles IX of France was so “ravished” by that Prologue that he determined to employ de Lassus at all costs.

Those notes, written by the Musical Director himself, Stephen Rice, are informative and scholarly, although perhaps a little too technical for the casual listener. There is some quite detailed elucidation of the understanding of Greek musical theory in the first half of the sixteenth century; the discussion of the relative merits of the diatonic, chromatic and enharmonic genera apparently attracted much debate and excited controversy. It seems that de Lassus was content to employ them all severally and in combination – which is probably all we need to know. I for one would have appreciated a little more commentary on the Sibylline texts as they are an intriguing mixture of piety and sensuous imagery.

Although some purists insist that such music should and indeed only can be properly performed with only one voice per part, I welcome the sonority achieved by Stephen Rice in using about three singers per line. It lends the polyphony richness without obscuring the words or becoming texturally overloaded.

The Brabant Ensemble maintains impeccable intonation and steadiness of line. The balance between the vocal lines is beautifully judged. They sing without employing vibrato and although half the ensemble is made up of women’s voices, they sound more like a first-rate boys’ choir. The recording acoustic is superb, with just enough resonance to create the sense of a sacred space.

My only reservation concerns the lack of variety in the programme. To my ears there is a certain uniform consonance of mood and musical tropes in this music, exquisitely though it is sung. However, the motets in particular provide some ethereally beautiful moments, such as the opening of Iustorum animae. De Lassus particularly liked to exploit the contrast engineered by first allowing the two upper lines to soar a fifth apart, then sliding the deep bass line underneath, as it were, to create a great chordal span of sound.

In his day, de Lassus was more celebrated than his contemporary Palestrina and even more prolific, although today their relative pre-eminence is reversed. This disc is typically representative of the Brabant Ensemble’s intention to record and promulgate somewhat lesser-known music from the first half of the sixteenth century. Devotees of the period will welcome its austere, otherworldly beauty.

Ralph Moore

Devotees of the period will welcome the austere, otherworldly beauty of this music.