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Orlande de LASSUS (1532-1594)
Le nozze in Baviera
Music for the 1568 Wedding of Wilhelm of Bavaria and Renate of Lorraine
Filippo AZZAIOLO [fl.1560s]
Ensemble Origo/Eric Rice
rec. 2016, Roslindale, Massachusetts, USA
NAXOS 8.579063 [61:04]

Orlande de Lassus (also known as Orlando di Lasso, Roland de Lassus, Orlandus Lassus, Orlande de Lattre and Roland de Lattre) lived from 1532 (or earlier) to 1594. Although one of the most influential composers of the late Renaissance Franco-Flemish school of polyphony - alongside Palestrina and Victoria - Lassus is often overlooked these days in their favour.

His music certainly boasts greater diversity than that of his Cisalpine contemporaries: variety is but one aspect of Lassus’s work which is highlighted by this pleasing new CD from the New England and New York-based Ensemble Origo; it was founded in 2010 by musicologist-conductor Eric Rice, who here directs and conducts.

There are solo, ensemble vocal, choral and instrumental numbers on Le nozze in Baviera (‘Bavarian wedding’); although, as Brian Wilson points out in his review <>, more instruments are listed than appear together in any one number.

Some of Lassus’s works like the Matona [tr.10] are well known; others have never before been recorded. What’s more, this appears to be Ensemble Origo’s first CD.

In his sensitive introduction at the start of the CD’s booklet Rice explains that the impetus for this recording was his curiosity about the Italian musical genre, the moresca, which caricatured Black Africans. Rice is all too aware of the many ways in which white composers, musicians, performers - not to mention historians, dramatists and other writers and commentators - would have it that the white race was the only one of any consequence … or even the only one to exist.

In the early spring of 1568 the wedding took place in Bavaria of Renate of Lorraine to Wilhelm V, heir to that Southern German dukedom. Lassus had by then travelled extensively (there are claims that he also visited England and France) from his native Mons at least to Germany and Italy. He was Duke Albrecht V’s (Wilhelm’s father) maestro di cappella and so provided the music for a celebration which Albrecht was determined to make an occasion to be remembered. The following year Massimo Troiano wrote a description of the event(s) in a form sufficiently detailed and vivid to allow Rice to attempt a hypothetical reconstruction of how the music may have sounded.

There its humour (Lucia, celu [tr.6], for instance), piety (the Te Deum [tr.1]), uninhibited celebration (Cathalina, apra finestra [tr.8]), parody and Burlesque (lla la pia calia [tr.3]), bawdy (O Lucia, miau [tr.7]), ceremony (Chi chilichi [tr.9]), and pathos (Chi passa per 'sta strada [tr.12]). This last is actually by a contemporary of Lassus, Filippo Azzaiolo, who was born between 1530 and 1540 and lived until after 1570 and gets just that one track on the CD.

In fact there is all the fun, frolicking and abandon of a wedding - especially one lasting as long as this one did… at least a fortnight. So the guests (here the performers of Ensemble Origo) realise that they had better behave themselves and hold their drink, and temper their abandon with lucidity and a measure of decorum which mustn’t sound too reluctant. The performers here get this just right.

Yet throughout it is the Moor, the Black man of Bornu (as in Lucia Celu [tr.6]), the ‘Black people’ (Gente negra in Hai, Lucia, bona cosa [tr.5]) who bear(s) the brunt of the stereotyping, caricature and lampooning. Rice explains that he in no way endorses or implies uncritical advocacy of the way these texts were used by Lassus. On the contrary, the tone set by the singers of Ensemble Origo exposes and explores an aspect of music-making which we shall never come to understand unless we are discerning enough to be familiar with it and its racism. They approach the idiom with equal sensitivity, never add spurious ‘humour’ for effect, and are as ‘straight’ as they need to be for us to enter a world where such tropes had something in common with the (at least implicit) stereotyping of Othello and Shylock a generation later.

Except the Te Deum, none of the music on this CD is what you would call profound or of great or significant beauty - even though Lassus was renown for such heights. This is essentially occasional music. Yet it has its appeal in more than the social context which inspired this CD. Each work still shows something of the essence of Lassus. Rice emphasises how a familiar theme like the love (and lust) of matrimony can be looked at from the altar - rather than from the bibulous party-goers’ viewpoint. In other words, he implicitly disparages - in ways not dissimilar to those found in works of a Ben Jonson or a Thomas Nashe which expose the foibles, drives, eccentricities and self-indulgence evident around them.

This self-confidence is well conveyed by Ensemble Origo. Their seriousness of purpose shows that. They understand the importance of the issues of race, exploitation, offensive marginalisation and ignorant misunderstanding which white privilege feeds.

The result is a compelling collection lasting just over an hour. Specifically, the longest and weightiest work is placed at the start. Then the performers show how and why Lassus is to be credited with a musical perception that must in large part have been the result of his travels and wide experiences in a variety of musical milieux. They do so through attention to detail, precise phrasing, clean enunciation, and accurate pronunciation (of C16th Italian, for example). Significantly, Ensemble Origo never overdoes innuendo or pastiche. It is this happy set of qualities - as well as the frankness of the way in which the moresca tradition is approached - that make this such an appealing CD.

The acoustic is that of Futura Productions (so presumably a studio) in Roslindale, Massachusetts. It’s quiet and easy on the ear and allows every syllable to be heard at a comfortable distance from the performers; and has a clear sense of physical width and depth. The booklet describes the music and its context; it has the texts in Italian and Latin with English. Unusually, these texts are interspersed with Rice’s commentary often drawing on the aforementioned account by Troiano so as to follow four of the events or ‘phases’ of the celebrations. These are: at the conclusion of the wedding ceremony itself; on the Sunday one week later; the evening of the 13th day after the wedding; and for the Commedia dell’Arte performance 15 days after the wedding.

For many new to Lassus, Le nozze in Baviera will give a slice of his non-sacred works that ought to delight and invite further exploration. For those who value this - yes - still much underrated composer, the CD may show something new. In all cases, it is one to revel in.

Mark Sealey

Previous review: Brian Wilson

Orlande de Lassus

Te Deum laudmus ( 6) [15:25]
Gratia sola Dei ( 6) [9:00]
lla la pia calia ( 4) [2:15]
Canta, Georgia, canta ( 6) [2:23]
Hai, Lucia, bona cosa ( 4) [2:42]
Lucia, celu, hai biscania ( 4) [3:27]
O Lucia, miau ( 3) [2:29]
Cathalina, apra finestra ( 6) [4:48]
Chi chilichi ( 6) [3:12]
Matona, mia cara ( 4) [2:55]
Se s alto pn gir mie stanche rime ( 5) [2:46]
Mi me chiamere ( 5) [2:21]
Par ch'hai lasciato ( 4) [3:02]
Zanni! Piasi, Patr? ( 8) [2:18]
Filippo Azzaiolo
Chi passa per 'sta strada [1:53]

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