This is music of stunning beauty. Lassus was perhaps the least
performed - certainly the least recorded - of the great triumvirate
of composers of Renaissance polyphony with Victoria and Palestrina.
He was more prolific than his Spanish and Italian opposite numbers.
His work was also more influential and spanned a wider variety
There is another recording of the Missa 'Vinum Bonum':
on Decca 444335 with King's, Cambridge, under Stephen
Cleobury. That CD presents the Mass as a unit. On the present
CD Jeffrey Skidmore has chosen to record well over a dozen other
items by the Franco-Flemish composer; they are heard between
the movements of the mass - as would probably have been the
practice during its performance in the Renaissance.
The CD is not, though, a liturgical 'reconstruction'
of any one occasion or of a putative 'incarnation'
of the music merely for modern effect or novelty. Such an approach
does highlight the aspect of the Parody mass (one which quotes)
that relies on familiarity with the quoted melodies, themes
and even textures and harmonic moments. Listeners have both
the 'source' material and the 'elevated'
import of the mass in mind almost simultaneously and almost
Some listeners, for sure, may prefer the impact of the Mass
in its conventional five or six movement form to be 'uninterrupted'.
Each movement of the Missa ad imitationem Vinum bonum
begins with a paraphrase of the opening of the motet (by Lassus)
of the same name - although more freely so in the case of the
Sanctus and Agnus Dei. Each movement - again
with the exception of the Sanctus - also ends with
an evocation of the motet. Even were you to overlook these facts,
and/or to discount current understanding of contemporary practice,
which probably favoured such interspersing, the richness and
variety of the sequence is a winning one.
The singing is superb: idiomatic, unhurried yet always bending
towards conveying the sublime, the venerating, the sensitive
and the divine. The wonderful Quam pulchra es [tr.11]
is a good example: unhurried, reflective, self-aware articulation
of Lassus' lines and colourful harmonies. Yet it is never
cloying, dallying and never spectacular.
There must have been a temptation to play to the fact that the
original motet (published in 1570) and the Mass which drew on
it (published seven years later) probably originated in less
than sanctified drinking songs as much as - or perhaps even
as an inspired extension of - in Christ's more sanctified
miracle with water and wine. Yet Ex Cathedra sing at all times
with decorum and style; never stiffly. Rather, they emphasise
the transcendental nature of Lassus' approach to illuminating
his texts and composing music of such elevation.
His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts consist of two of the former
and six players of eight (two altos, four tenors, two bases)
of the latter. Their contribution is as sensitive as it is technically
persuasive. Rarely 'symphonic', as would be inappropriate,
their playing is in places perhaps a little too 'crafted'
- as at the start of the Bicinium IX [tr.17], which
scarcely needs the hint of mystery that they bring to it, for
instance. This is particularly true since Ex Cathedra and Skidmore
otherwise rightly rely on the burden of the texts for the music
to make its fullest impact. In all other respects, the singing
is highly polished. There are some gloriously high notes throughout
the works here.
The recording is from 1995; this CD from Alto is a re-issue
of ASV Gaudeamus CDGAU 150. Its acoustic is perhaps a little
'roomy' and slightly less than crystalline. Neither
overdriven nor unduly reverberant, whichever hall or room at
Oscott College in Sutton Coldfield was used certainly adds its
own personality and brings a tinge of distance to the projection
of the individual voices. This may tend to tire listeners on
repeated sessions with the CD as they 'reach'
for the clarity of Lassus' music. Untrammelled reception
of a work like the Christus resurgens [tr.13] is needed.
The CD's booklet has a good introductory essay on Lassus,
his historical and musical context and the music to be heard
here. The texts in Latin and English are reproduced in full
- though in a tiny font.
Those new to the heights of Lassus will not be disappointed
with this CD. If you have the Cleobury recording, it represents
a different perspective. If you routinely make recordings of
Lassus a priority, there is no real or pressing reason not to
include this one.