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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
Ensemble Origo/Eric Rice
rec. 24–28 August 2016, Futura Productions, Roslindale, Massachusetts, USA. DDD.
Texts and translations included
Reviewed as lossless (wav) press preview
NAXOS 8.579063 [61:01]

This appears to be Ensemble Origo’s recording debut; if so, it’s an auspicious one from a versatile and accomplished ensemble, equally at home in sacred and secular music. They even have one member who sings both alto and tenor, according to requirement.

Eric Rice, who has arranged and directs the music, made an earlier recording of the music for the annual celebration of Saint Carolus, better known as Charlemagne (Musique en Wallonie MEW1267). Charlemagne was actually canonised by an anti-pope, but that didn’t prevent Rice, with the group Exsultemus, from giving us some attractive thirteenth-century chant and sixteenth-century polyphony – review. Most of the music on that recording is by little-known composers, but it also includes seven works by Lassus, whose music forms the basis of this new Naxos recording. If the new recording is less lavishly presented than that hardback booklet, the price compensates – and it’s not that Naxos stints on anything of importance, with texts and translations and notes on the chosen music.

The reconstruction of the music for a lavish Medici wedding of a few years later (1589), most memorably recorded by Andrew Parrott, the Taverner Consort and Players and a distinguished team of soloists (Erato 6026842, download only), and subsequently by others, has become a classic of the recorded catalogue.

The reconstruction of the music for the 1568 Bavarian ceremony may involve a little more guesswork, but the opening Te Deum can be fairly certainly identified as that which was sung at the conclusion of the nuptials, on Sunday 22 February. A description by a contemporary seems to nail the attribution to the setting which was published later that year. No mention is made of instrumental accompaniment, but it’s quite likely that such was the case, and that’s added convincingly here. The list of instruments in the booklet may look like the contents of a veritable armoury, but only a selection is used in each piece, so the singers are never overwhelmed. With three sackbuts involved, a little can seem to go a long way. In common with the practice of the time, alternate verses are intoned by the cantor and set polyphonically – or should be; later in the work, the sopranos sing the chanted verses.

I doubt that a direct rival to this very varied collection is likely to appear any time soon. In any case, the individual pieces are all competitive, each in its own right. Even the opening six-part Te Deum has not been recorded too often; it appears, with other sacred works, on a collection of Lassus’ music from Studio de Musique Ancienne de Montréal and Andrew McAnerney which I thought did full justice to the wonderful music (Atma ACD22746 – Passiontide and Easter 2017). I’m not sure about having some of the chant sung by the sopranos, but this happens regularly on the Atma recording, and occasionally on the Naxos. The Atma notes specifically acknowledge that the chanted verses would have been sung ‘by celebrants’ (actually, more likely by a celebrant, singular). With such purity of tone on both recordings, however, it’s impossible to be too critical of this divergence from authenticity.

Though the Atma recording transgresses more in that regard, it remains an attractive collection of Lassus’ music. The main difference between it and the Naxos is that all the music is sung a cappella on Atma, though the notes acknowledge that the Te Deum may have been sung ‘accompanied by instruments colla parte’.

When the second work, Gratia sola Dei, performed a week later at supper – such events tended to go on; this one, lasting 18 days, was intended to vie with Italian ceremonies – was published a year later, its suitability for instrumental accompaniment was specifically mentioned. We know, however, that the second part was sung a cappella by ‘four select voices’ who sang so sweetly that the diners paused to listen with food in their mouths and the servants dared not move. There may be a degree of hype there; it’s as impossible to know how they sounded as it is to ask what song the Sirens sang, but that’s a steep challenge for the modern performers. The ensemble rise to the occasion, but it’s perhaps not surprising that I can’t find any other recording that attempts it.

The next group of pieces, performed in the evening of 6 March, features the form known as a moresca, literally a Moorish piece. Unlike the ‘Moorish’ music of Spain, a reminder of the former inhabitants who had to convert to Christianity in the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, or decamp to North Africa, the ‘Moors’ in these songs would have been African slaves; the texts, in a mix of dialects, often include words from the Kanuri language. It’s these pieces that originally inspired Rice’s interest in the music. They wouldn’t be considered politically correct today, but they have to be accepted as of their time.

Finally, we have a group of pieces associated with the Commedia dell’arte, the knockabout farce performed on Monday, 8 March. Thus, though Se sì alto pôn gir mie stanche rime sets Petrarch, no less, in general we end on a very different, often double-entendre and scatological, note from the solemn Te Deum with which the programme opened.

Without trawling through the catalogue, I can’t be sure, but I believe that most of the pieces here are not otherwise available. A quick check, for example, has turned up only one other recording of the moresche: Matona mia cara from Les Voix humaines on Atma ACD22504, a programme of music for Carnival.

This Naxos release probably won’t make the splash that the Parrott recording of the Florentine Intermedii did, thanks partly to a very successful Proms performance, but it is very enjoyable. Though Naxos CDs are no longer the bargains that they were – beware of dealers asking over £10 – this is well worth the modest asking price of around £7.50, or around £5/$7 as a lossless download. (Emphatically, do NOT pay around £8 for mp3 downloads of Naxos releases.) While you are about it, consider also another recent Naxos release, Carmina predulcia, music from the Schedel Songbook (8.551440 – Naxos Late 2020).

Brian Wilson

Te Deum laudámus a 6 (from Selectissimæ cantiones) (1568) [15:21]
Gratia sola Dei a 6 (from Cantiones aliquot) (1569) [9:00]
Libro de villanelle, moresche, et altre canzoni) (1581):
Álla la pia calia a 4 [2:15]
Canta, Georgia, canta a 6 [2:23]
Hai, Lucia, bona cosa a 4 [2:42]
Lucia, celu, hai biscania a 4 [3:27]
O Lucia, miau a 3 (from Il terzo libro delle villotte alla napoletana) (1560) 2:28
Libro de villanelle, moresche, et altre canzoni) (1581):
Cathalina, apra finestra a 6 [4:46]
Chi chilichi a 6 [3:10]
Matona, mia cara a 4 [2:53]
Se sì alto pôn gir mie stanche rime a 5 (from Il terzo libro di madrigal) (1563) [2:46]
Filippo AZZAIOLO (between 1530 and 1540 – after 1570; fl. 1557–69)
Chi passa per ’sta strada (from Il primo libro de villotte alla padoana con alcune napolitane) (1557)
Orlande de LASSUS
Libro de villanelle, moresche, et altre canzoni) (1581):
Mi me chiamere a 5 [2:22]
Par ch’hai lasciato a 4 [3:01]
Zanni! Piasi, Patrò? a 8 [2:18]



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