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Orlandus LASSUS (1532–1594)
Passio Domini nostri Jesu Christi secundum Mattheum (St Matthew Passion, 1575)
Musica Ficta/Bo Holten
rec. 2015, Isaiah Church, Copenhagen
Text and translation included.
First released in 2017 in Scandinavia as 8.573826
NAXOS 8.573840 [88:18]

As luck would have it, I find myself reviewing this disc on Easter Sunday. Inevitably, even for those of us who do not adhere strictly to the principles of a particular faith, it is well-nigh impossible to abstract ourselves completely from the philosophical and spiritual trappings linked to this time of year. However if one needed a nudge to take time out to reflect and contemplate, this disc provides it.

In his brief but informative note for this issue, Holten dates Lassus’s St Matthew Passion to 1575, roughly 150 years before Bach’s masterpiece of the same name. By this time Lassus was an experienced maestro di capella at the court of Albrecht V in Bavaria. Having married a German woman in 1558 he was well settled in Munich and notwithstanding occasional trips to Italy he stayed there until his death in 1594. Holten reminds us that as a musical form the ‘Passion’ idea – the setting of the words of a gospel that convey the events leading up to Christ’s crucifixion – had developed over centuries. One would therefore not be surprised if, 150 years prior to Bach, a Passion-type work was pared right down to the essentials, was heavily dependent on the narrative role of the evangelist and in musical terms at least was extremely austere. This last adjective is the one that is most apt here. That is not remotely to imply that the work or this recording is devoid of musical interest. Far from it.

Musica Ficta’s two baritones, Torsten Nielsen and Lauritz Jacob Thomsen, take on the crucial roles of the Evangelist and Jesus respectively. Nielsen’s Evangelist delivers the narrative with the cool objectivity of a seasoned news reporter. In this context such gravitas is both appropriate to the occasion and provides the deepest possible encouragement for the listener, armed with the translation of the Latin text (provided in the booklet) to immerse themselves in the piece – in this case all 88 minutes of it. As it is unlikely individuals will put this disc on as ‘entertainment’, an appreciation of the ‘timeline’ of events is absolutely vital to make sense of the experience. Nielsen’s solemn delivery carries this recording superbly throughout. His diction is immaculate and his intonation flawless. After a time it becomes oddly hypnotic. Thomsen’s voice is slightly softer, providing a clear and necessary contrast to the Evangelist. His Jesus thus has humanity, strength and vulnerability. These two single voices dominate this disc; it is important to understand that roughly two thirds of the Passion as presented here consists of monophony produced by one of these single voices.

The remaining members of Musica Ficta then literally perform as a ‘chorus’, collectively interpreting the other roles in this timeless drama, whether groups such as the Disciples, the False Witnesses, the Soldiers or the Thieves, or individual characters such as the Chief Priest, individual Disciples, or Pilate. This arrangement is certainly conducive to a more varied listening experience, while the ensemble seize their opportunity to shine, its individual voices combining to wonderful effect in the motets and madrigal which Holten has woven into the fabric of the Passion. As he explains in his note, this is perfectly consistent with Renaissance practice – moreover Lassus’s oeuvre contains many appropriate items which illustrate key events in the unfolding narrative. Thus the listener is treated to sonorous accounts of motets such as Tristis est anima mea, the deeply moving Animam meam dilectam tradidi and the rousing madrigal Tre volte havev’a (borrowed from Lassus’s final magisterial collection Lagrime di San Pietro) which concludes the Maundy Thursday segment.

The choral interpolations occur more regularly in the following Good Friday section. Those who do stay the whole course will be rewarded at the end by searing accounts of the glorious motet Mors tua, mors Christi and the concluding Agnus Dei. The Isaiah Church in Copenhagen offers a truly apt acoustic for this recording, providing a gentle halo around the voice of the Evangelist, while the engineers have skilfully avoided excessive reverberation for the choir. The overall effect is one of profound intimacy. I must say I played the whole disc through in one sitting at first listen and felt moved and spiritually refreshed by doing so. Notwithstanding the impeccable and humane performances by these Danish forces, I suspect it is not an experience I will repeat often for the reasons presented earlier in this review. But I’m equally sure I shall return to it at some point. In our chaotic and unpredictable world I feel many listeners could do worse than to find some time and space to listen intently to this disc – it ultimately adds up to much more than a soundtrack for contemplation.

Richard Hanlon
Previous review: Brian Wilson



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