Orlande de LASSUS (1532-1594)
Missa ad imitationem Vinum Bonum
Missa ad imitationem Vinum bonum (1577) [20:27]
Musica Dei donum a 6 [4:32]
Bicinium III [1:09]
Vinum bonum a 8 [3:43]
Salve Regina a 6 [3:52]
Bicinium XIV [1:57]
Laudent Deum a 4 [0:42]
Justorum animae a 5 [3:05]
Quam pulchra es a 6 [6:48]
Agimus Tibi a 3 [1:28]
Christus resurgens a 5 [2:45]
Tristis est anima mea a 5 [3:56]
Bicinium IX [1:55]
Ave verum corpus a 6 [4:07]
Bone Jesu a 8 [4:59]
Tui sunt coeli a 8 [2:52]
Vide homo a 7 [3:50]
Ex Cathedra; His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts/Jeffrey Skidmore
rec. July 1995, Oscott College, Sutton Coldfield, England. DDD (previously released on ASV Gaudeamus CDGAU 150)
ALTO ALC1177 [68:37]
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 of forms.
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 continually.
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.
Mark Sealey
Sublime music by Lassus superbly performed.