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Orlande de LASSUS (c.1532-1594)
Lagrime di San Pietro [54:44]
Motet: Vide homo [4:23]
Ensemble Vocal Européen/Philippe Herreweghe
rec. June 1993, location unspecified
HARMONIA MUNDI HMA1951483 [59:07]

This disc is ravishing, and wonderful, but very difficult to write about. I intentionally held off listening to it until I had heard the same artists - even including one of the very same singers - perform the Lagrime at the 2014 Edinburgh Festival in the resonant acoustic of Greyfriars Kirk. It had a profound effect on me then, and this recording replicated a similar result.
The programme note for that concert mischievously suggested that Lagrime di San Pietro was the nearest musical equivalent to the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Lassus sets a cycle of twenty Italian poems called rispetti: “possibly the most restricted poetic form in European history” in David Fallows’ words. Each movement is of roughly the same length (about 2½ minutes), each is set for seven voices, and each moves at roughly the same speed. In other words, Lassus consciously restricts himself in the severest manner possible to an extremely limited form of musical setting.
The results are enchanting, even spellbinding. Each of the poems is, to some degree or other, about Peter’s sorrow and penitence after his denial of Christ, but the atmosphere is never sorrowful for its own sake: instead there is a cleanness and unencumbered sense of beauty. This would have chimed with the contemporary counter-reformation focus on the beauty of holiness and its power in re-winning converts to the Roman Catholic church. There isn’t much in the way of what we would recognise as melody: instead the music works by weaving a spell of mesmerising counterpoint around the listener, allowing you to lose yourself in the other-worldly atmosphere of beauty that it creates. For that to succeed it needs performers of skill and delicacy to bring out the work’s independently moving lines and to create an impression of seamlessness. This recording gives you that triumphantly. Herreweghe clearly knows, respects and loves this work thoroughly, and he crafts a performance of precisely observed detail that feels as though the music's very soul is being unveiled to the listener. In some instances that might become repetitive, and it’s true that there isn’t much in the way of variety. However, where in some cases that might be a criticism, in this case it’s a triumph, part of the work’s appeal, in fact, because it intensifies the sense of inward communion.
That is also, however, what makes the disc difficult to write about. Often, when I’m reviewing a disc of songs or a collection of vocal numbers, I pick out different elements of particular movements that stick out as remarkable but I couldn’t do that with this disc because of the great degree of similarity that runs across it. Again, in most cases that would be a criticism, but here it merely serves to underscore the sense of seamlessness unfolding before the listener. In this case, words don’t seem to help in conveying the magical, almost hermetically sealed world of the music and the disc’s success in bringing that to life. There are no texts or translations with the disc, which I would normally complain about but, speaking from experience, I had the texts in front of me when I listened in Greyfriars, and it made no difference: after a few moments I put the programme away and simply listened, entranced, to what was being produced in front of me, and feeling lucky that I was there to hear it.
All I can do is to commend this disc and say that it will repay very careful listening. That’s even easier to do when you consider that it’s on one of Harmonia Mundi’s bargain reissue labels, so there is no reason to hesitate.
Simon Thompson