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Orlandus LASSUS (1530/32 - 1594)
Responsories for Holy Week
Ars Cantica/Marco Berrini
rec. 2003, Church of S. Maria Incoronata, Martinengo, Bergamo, Italy

The musical repertoire for Passiontide, one of the key moments in the ecclesiastical year, is large and varied. Thanks to Johann Sebastian Bach, the narrative of Christ's Passion as found in the gospels has become especially well known, and the popularity of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater - a poetic account of Mary's feelings as she watches her Son's sufferings – ensured that it became one of the most famous of liturgical texts. However, their music represents only two genres of Passion music. During Lent, the forty days preceding Easter, the seven penitential psalms were sung, and in the three last days of that period, known as the triduum sacrum, texts from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, as part of the Nocturns, which ends the Matins. The Lamentations - known as Lectiones - were followed by three responsories.

All genres of Passion music are represented in the large oeuvre of Orlandus Lassus. This disc under review includes the eighteen responsories for the second and third Nocturns of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Written around 1580 and preserved in manuscript, they were probably intended for a performance in the private chapel in Munich of Lassus' employer, Duke Wilhelm V of Bavaria. Scholars have wondered, why Lassus omitted the responsories for the first Nocturn; the liner-notes refer to Clive Wearing, who from 1978 to 1980 published a practical edition of the responsories (Mapa Mundi) and suggested that "this choice probably follows the liturgical tradition in the Duke's chapel of singing the three lessons of each of the first Nocturns – the Lamentations of Jeremiah – in polyphony instead of the following responsories, which were sung monodically, in plainchant. For the second and third Nocturn, this distribution was inverted: the Lessons were sung in plainchant and the responsories in polyphony."

Every responsory has the same structure. It is divided into two sections: the responsum and the versus. The responsum consists of two sections; the second is repeated after the versus, resulting in an ABCB structure. The third responsory of each Nocturn is different, in that at the end the whole responsum is repeated, which extends the structure to ABCBAB. The responsories are for four voices, but - as was the custom at the time - the versus was set for reduced forces, usually three. This is also the case in the settings by Tomás Luis de Victoria included in his Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae of 1585. Lassus creates a stronger contrast by setting the versus as bicinia, either for soprano and alto, or tenor and bass. These passages are largely polyphonic, whereas the responsa are predominately homophonic and often syllabic. This results in the texts being clearly intelligible, in line with the direction formulated by the Council of Trent.

Anyone acquainted with other music by Lassus will probably notice a less pronounced connection here between text and music than is common in his oeuvre. However, if one listens carefully and follows the text, one will notice that many textual details are effectively translated into music. The liner-notes give various examples, one of which is the Tenebrae factae sunt, the second responsory from the Second Nocturn of Good Friday. The first words, "Darkness fell", are sung at low pitch, followed by a pause. In the next phrase, on the words "around the ninth hour", Lassus makes use of the rhetorical figure of the circulatio. The word "exclamavit" is set to a sharply rising figure. The phrase "and he bowed his head and gave up the ghost" is dominated by descending figures.

It is remarkable that no complete recording has been available before this present release. It is probably telling that the recording dates from 2003 and was released for the first time only in 2017. Lassus is one of the most famous composers of the 16th century, but scant attention has been given to this part of his output; most ensembles prefer the more expressive and exuberant settings of Carlo Gesualdo. However, a good performance will reveal that Lassus' own settings, despite being more restrained, are uniquely expressive and thus a worthy addition to the Passion repertoire - and these performances are good: the voices blend perfectly, the text is clearly intelligible, and subtle dynamic shading is used to highlight particular elements of the text.

For those who would like to expand their horizons in this area of music for Passiontide, this fine production is not to be missed.

Johan van Veen

[Responsories for Maundy Thursday]
[Second Nocturn]
Amicus meus [2:48]
Judas merator pessimus [2:01]
Unus ex discipuli [3:43]
[Third Nocturn]
Eram quasi agnus [2:52]
Una hora [2:11]
Seniores populi [3:16]
[Responsories for Good Friday]
[Second Nocturn]
Tamquam ad latronem [2:59]
Tenebrae factae sunt [3:22]
Animam meam dilectam [5:31]
[Third Nocturn]
Tradiderunt me [2:13]
Jesum tradidit impius [2:16]
Caligaverunt oculi mei [4:02]
[Responsories for Holy Saturday]
[Second Nocturn]
Recessit pastor noster [2:39]
O vos omnes [2:19]
Ecce quomodo moritus [4:02]
[Third Nocturn]
Astiterunt reges terrae [1:49]
Aestimatus sum [2:22]
Sepulto Domino [2:43]



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