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Roland (Orlando) de LASSUS (1532-1594)
Canticum Canticorum
Osculetur me osculo a 8 [4.02]
Veni in hortum meum a 6 [2.40]
Tota pulchra es a 4 [3.30]
Vulnerasti cor meum a 6 [2.23]
Surge propera amica mea/Surge propera a 6 [3.31]
Quam pulchra es/Gutur tuum a 5 [5.50]
Veni dilecte me/Videmus si floruit [3.46]
Audi dulcis amica mea [3.27]
Magnificat a 5 [8.29]
Missa Susanne un jour [26.56]
Ensemble Clematis; Choeur de Chambre de Namur/Leonardo Garcia Alarcón
rec. church of St. Sébastien, Stavelot, Belgium, October 2015, April 2016
RICERCAR RIC370 [64.53]

First of all don’t be misled. This is not a disc totally devoted to settings by Lassus of verses from the Old Testament’s extraordinary erotic book ‘The Song of Songs’ (Canticum Canticorum) although it could have been as there are by Lassus a considerable number of them. No, this disc contains three seemingly unrelated works. Even so, this has for me been one of the most enjoyable Lassus discs I have come across.

Unlike Palestrina, Lassus’s settings (1562-1585) from this book are found scattered in various publications helpfully listed in the CD booklet. Eight of them are drawn together here but they only take up half an hour of the disc's 65 minutes.

How this book made it into the Bible is baffling for many. There are lines like ‘You hold yourself like a palm tree/And your breasts are like its clusters” and elsewhere “Come my beloved, let us go into the fields …/And I will give you my body”. The first lines are given to the Sponsus- (Bridegroom) and the second to the Sponsa (Bride). Their sexual desires are not understated and I know from experience that having set some of these texts myself I was somewhat taken aback when the conductor asked me if I could make some changes to the text.

The Bridegroom represents Our Lord Jesus Christ and the Bride is the Church. Through this dialogue they show their undying love for each other. That is how the Church has always perceived this book. Composers have loved these texts. So the delineation of sacred and secular becomes invisible.

Consequently the other works on the disc can be seen in this light. The 5-part Magnificat is based on the 4-part ‘Ancor che col partire’. The latter is one of the most beautiful madrigals of the 16th century. It's by Cipriano de Rore (d.1566) and would have been well known at the Munich court. Lassus sets the text ‘in alternatim’ and, cleverly phrase by phrase, develops each section around the madrigal.

The Mass is based on another very popular three-part love-song of the time published in 1548 by Didier Lupi (c.1520-1559). a little known figure but made famous in an arrangement by Lassus himself in a publication of 1552. The text of the poem "Susanne un jour" by Guillaume Guéroult is given in the booklet ‘Susanne one day was urged to give herself /To two old men who coveted her beauty”. Was it a little dangerous using this song for a mass setting bearing in mind the encyclical from the Council of Trent against using popular melodies in church music. On the other hand, why should the Devil have all the best tunes? I am playing devil's advocate because a thorough reading of the text would indicate that there is a moral here as Susanne stays chaste and unmolested because she prefers "Innocence rather than offend the Lord by sinning".

Disappointingly, although there would have been space on the CD it was not deemed necessary to record the two madrigals, which inform the Magnificat and the Parody Mass; it can’t be assumed that everyone is familiar with these pieces. It's an opportunity lost, I feel.

The Missa super Susanne un jour has been recorded by several other choirs but I am not familiar with them, so I have reserved my comments for this CD. Whereas in the motets a choir of thirteen are accompanied gently by differing combinations of Ensemble Clematis, which consist of six strings, a lute and a cornet, the Mass is ‘a capella’ with just a portative organ and sixteen voices. Lassus had instrumentalists available at the court of the Duke of Bavaria and it would not have been out of place to add them to the mass. On the reverse side, in the motets the slightly unfocused sound of the choir with its lack of rhythmic attack is not helped when doubled by instruments. This is felt particularly in some of the more complex passages, so in the mass there is a better focus and clarity. The wonderful melody is especially noticeable in the Kyrie and Agnus dei although gets lost a little in the long Credo text but its harmonic implications are always present.

Despite a few caveats this is a fine disc and worth searching out with high quality music throughout. The baroque church acoustic in Stavelot is helpful and adds a tender bloom to the tone quality .The booklet and CD come in a handsome cardboard case. Texts are given for the motets but not for the Magnificat and Mass, a curious omission but it’s presumably assumed that you know those words inside out.

Gary Higginson



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