Orlandus LASSUS (1532-1594)
Sibylla Persica [02:33]
Sibylla Libyca [02:42]
Sibylla Delphica [02:15]
Sibylla Cimmeria [01:59]
Sibylla Samia [01:48]
Sibylla Cumana [02:02]
Sibylla Hellespontica [02:04]
Sibylla Phrygia [01:47]
Sibylla Europaea [02:03]
Sibylla Tiburtina [02:02]
Sibylla Erythraea [01:52]
Sibylla Agrippa [02:33]
Dixit Dominus a 8 [04:16]
Angelus ad pastores ait a 5 [02:29]
Quem vidistis, pastores? a 5 [02:27]
Videntes stellam a 5 [03:29]
Ave Maria a 5 [01:47]
Magnificat super Aurora lucis rutilat a 10 [07:27]
Vocalconsort Berlin/Daniel Reuss
rec. Christus-Kirche, Berlin-Oberschöneweide, Germany, May 29-31, 2015
ACCENT ACC24307 [49:06]
In the course of the 16th century composers turned to a closer connection between text and music. That comes especially to the fore in the madrigals written by some of the most famous representatives of the Franco-Flemish school. Gradually this tendency spread to sacred music, and this resulted in so-called madrigalisms. One of the main representatives of this trend was Orlandus Lassus, in his time by far the most celebrated composer in Europe. This disc brings together some fine specimens of his brilliance in the realm of text expression. That goes especially for his Prophetiae Sibyllarum which were not printed during his lifetime, but made a great impression on his contemporaries which suggests that this work must have circulated in manuscript. It seems to have been composed during Lassus' years in Italy, before he entered the service of Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria.
This is one of the most remarkable works by Lassus, in part because of its texts. The Sibyls were oracular women which in ancient Greece were believed to possess prophetic powers. The first author to mention a Sibyl was Heraclitus in the 5th century BC. In the course of time various authors referred to more Sibyls, up to ten, whose names referred to the shrine from which they spoke. In the Renaissance the number varies, and sometimes reaches twelve, as is the case in Lassus' settings. The Sibyls were also the subject of paintings, for instance Michelangelo's in the Sistine Chapel in Rome. There Lassus was active as maestro di cappella in 1553/54. The Sibylline writings had been given a Christian interpretation since the second century. They were believed to prophesy the coming of Christ. Although composers set texts by ancient writers without any Christian connotation, in this case the Christian interpretation must have been the incentive to set them to music. The fact that the manuscript of this work which is preserved in the Austrian National Library also includes the Sacrae Lectiones ex propheta Job points in that direction. Even so, this is not music for the liturgy: the texts certainly didn't fit any liturgical context, and it seems plausible to assume that both cycles were written for domestic performance.
This probably means that a performance with a small ensemble, maybe even solo voices, is to be preferred. That way the many unusual harmonic progressions may come off to optimum effect. The use of harmony is one of the most striking aspects of these settings. It is often written that they are dominated by chromaticism, but in the liner-notes to his recording with The Brabant Ensemble (review) Stephen Rice disputes this view. The opening phrase of the 'prologue' says: "Carmina chromatico quae audis modulata tenore". Rice states that the word chromatico doesn't refer to carmina, but to tenore. The booklet gives this translation: "The modulating songs with a chromatic tenor". "In fact the tenor of the prologue is not chromatic at all, at least in the sense in which the term was understood in the sixteenth century: all of its melodic intervals are diatonic". Rice then talks at length about the debates on tuning in Lassus' time; if you want to read this you can download the booklet from Hyperion's website.
Nothing about this is mentioned in the booklet of the present recording. Bernhard Schrammek writes: "A frequent stylistic device utilised by the composer in the twelve motets is chromaticism - already referred to in the Prologue in the mention of the 'Carmina chromatico'. Here Lasso often juxtaposes disparate harmonies to enhance expression." If one looks at the texts which are about the coming of Christ there seems little reason for such "disparate harmonies". That raises the question of why he used them. Otherwise chromaticism plays hardly a role in Lassus' oeuvre and certainly not on this scale.
The connection between the Sibyllic prophecies and Christmas inspired Daniel Reuss to extend the programme with a number of liturgical pieces for Christmastide. Obviously there are no reasons here to turn to "disparate harmonies". The Magnificat in particular has a celebratory character, partly thanks to the scoring for ten voices. As with so many settings of this text it is an alternatim composition: the odd verses are sung in plainchant. An example of text expression comes in the low notes on "procidentes" (falling down [of the magi]) in Videntes stellam. This feature of Lassus' compositional style is even more pronounced in Dixit Dominus, the first psalm of the Vesper service which has inspired many composers throughout history to some of their most impressive compositions. With the means of the stile antico Lassus manages to depict the most dramatic verses, 'Dominus a dextris tuis' and 'Judicabit in nationibus'. He also uses the eight voices - split into two choirs - quite effectively.
In such compositions the performance with instruments colla parte could be a legitimate option. However, a performance with voices alone suffices to communicate the music's content and character. Reuss has opted for a line-up of generally two singers per voice. That is certainly right as far as the performance of the liturgical pieces is concerned if we consider the large chapel Lassus had at his disposal. As already mentioned, the Prophetiae Sibyllarum would probably fare best with one voice per part. The Vocalconsort Berlin is a little smaller here than The Brabant Ensemble and although I haven't compared both recordings piece by piece the harmonies seem to come off a little better in the present recording. The singing is also more declamatory than The Brabant Ensemble's which is more linear and straightforward.
All in all, both recordings are well worth having especially as the additional music is very different. Reuss and his singers certainly deliver a strong case for these masterpieces by Lassus.
Johan van Veen