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Orlande de LASSUS (1532-1594)
Missa Bell' Amfitrit' altera [24:30]
Psalmus Poenitentialis VII [22:11]
Omnes de Saba [3:17]
Salve Regina [5:36]
Alma Redemptoris Mater [4:00]
Psalmus Poenitentialis V [39:26]
Tui sunt coeli [3:24]
Missa Super Triste Départ [22:10]
Missa Super Quand'io pens'al martire [21:30]
Motet: Vinum Bonum [4:15]
Missa ad imitationem Vinum Bonum [17:12]
Christ Church Cathedral Choir, Oxford/Simon Preston
Choir of King's College Cambridge/Stephen Cleobury
rec. 1973, The Chapel of Merton College, Oxford; 1975, Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford; 1993, King's College, Cambridge
Notes but no texts, ADD/DDD
ELOQUENCE 482 8566 [3 CDs: 167:51]

This three CD set is an Oxbridge combination of two recordings made in the 70’s and a digital recording made twenty years later of choral music by the celebrated Franco-Flemish polyphonist Orlande de Lassus.

The Missa Bell' Amfitrit' altera and the Missa Vinum Bonum are both ‘parody masses’, their main themes being based on a pre-existent secular madrigal – as yet unidentified - and Lassus’ liturgical motet respectively and were written for double choirs and are consequently more elaborate than the other items here; all three were critically acclaimed at the time of their release and their compilation here represents a welcome bargain, especially as Lassus is still the least performed and recorded of the ‘Big Three’ of his era, the other two being Palestrina and de Victoria. Unfortunately, although the original issues provided texts, there are none here, but we do have new, entertaining and informative notes by the Catholic scholar, author, organist and composer R.J. Stove. It would be otiose to judge them by strict HIP standards, but we must acknowledge that they are sung in the English choral-school style, using sizeable vocal forces and boys’ voices in the treble line.

There is a difference between the Oxford and Cambridge approaches: there is a bell-like clarity to Christ Church choir, whereas King’s is smoother and more rounded, but both are magnificent. The ambient acoustics are different, too: there is always some sort of faint rumble in the background of the King’s chapel and the choir is recorded quite closely, whereas in Christ Church, there is more distance between the singers and the listener, and I prefer those analogue recordings. However, these are marginal considerations, as dynamic grading and word-painting are equally exemplary and the inner-part voices emerge distinctly in both. I also like the fact that both choirs retain that peculiarly innocent and moving quality which derives only from the more resinous timbre of pre-pubescent male voices rather than the purer, more disembodied sound which results from using female sopranos in the top line.

I suggest that attempting to listen to the four masses, two sets of penitential psalms and five motets on all three CDs without breaks will result in aural indigestion, lovely though the music is; Lassus provides variety by sometimes writing for only two vocal lines in the Psalms or short passages for only four solo voices in certain of the Masses, which provides contrast with, and greater impact for, the return of the tutti mode, but this music is best sampled in controlled measures, the diet is so rich. Nor is the music all floaty transcendence; there are, for example, especially with the Christ Church choir in the Psalms, moments when then they may heard really letting rip without coarsening their tone.

It may be the product of hearing this music performed by quintessentially English choirs that I hear in the soaring treble lines, dense textures and gorgeous suspensions here so much kinship between Lassus’ idiom and that of near-contemporary English composers such as Tallis, Byrd and Taverner, but the associations are inescapable to my ears – and that is to the detriment of neither Lassus nor those gentlemen.

Ralph Moore

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