Lassus’ St. Matthew Passion and the beautiful 6-voice Motet, Ave Verum Corpus, which forms a perfect foil to the Passion. These are complemented by two other examples demonstrating Lassus’ amazing diversity as a composer: Vide homo, and Musica Dei donum (Music, gift of God most high). Both these were recorded by Ex Cathedra for ASV in 1996 and are included in this disc with permission from Ex Cathedra. They are among Lassus’ last published works. Vide homo is the concluding motet in the Lagrime di San Pietro, a cycle of 20 sacred madrigals. Musica Dei donum was originally planned as the final work in the final volume of Lassus’ six-voice collection Cantiones sacrae.
Born in Belgium, Orlando di Lassus is today considered to be the chief representative of the mature polyphonic style of the Netherlands school and was the most famous and influential musician in Europe at the end of the 16th century. He was one of the most prolific and versatile of all composers of that period and in his time the best-known and most widely admired musician in Europe. He wrote over 2000 works in all Latin, French, Italian and German vocal genres known in his time.
Lassus was a truly cosmopolitan composer, having worked in Sicily, Naples, Milan, Rome, Paris and he almost certainly visited England. After his early success in Rome — he became maestro di cappella at St. Giovanni in Laterano at the age of 21 – he accepted an invitation to join the court of Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria in Munich and was engaged as a tenor in a chapel headed by Ludwig Daser. He took over the leadership of the chapel in 1563, and remained in the service of Albrecht V and his heir, Wilhelm V for the rest of his life.
Among Lassus’ many sacred compositions (which also include 60 Masses and no less than 100 settings of the Magnificat) the Masses display enormous musical originality and agility. His settings of the four Passions are responsorial and typical of Italian composers throughout most of the 16th century.
Lassus’ setting of the St. Matthew Passion, published in 1575, is responsorial and typical of Italian composers of the 16th century. Put simply, the words of Jesus and the Evangelist are chanted in Plainsong throughout, representing the narrative, and they are alternated by a 5-voice polyphonic group representing all the other characters. Lassus maintains a clear stylistic distinction between the two and this combination of long passages of plainsong with intense and detailed polyphony result in a work of focused and heightened emotion.
The St. Matthew Passion enjoyed great and lasting popularity and a manuscript dated 1743 shows that it was still performed 150 years after its composition.
This recording includes one of Lassus’ many beautiful motets, the six-voice Ave verum corpus (Hail true body). Again Lassus here displays his understanding of the dramatic power of contrasting textures. The intensity in simplicity so prominent in Lassus’ setting of the St. Matthew Passion is summed up masterfully as the Ave Verum motet closes: two almost homophonic repetitions of ‘miserere mei’ (have mercy on me) are followed by a bare, simple, arresting ‘Amen.’ Such ingenuity, freedom, skill, and devotion wrapped in one musical moment lasting only a matter of minutes makes it easy to understand why Lassus was the pre-eminent composer of his time and why his music is so loved to this day.
Performing on this CD are: Grace Davidson, Elizabeth Drury, Sally Dunkley, Susannah Vango (soprano); Lucy Ballard, Mark Chambers (alto); Nicholas Mulroy, Christopher Watson (tenor); Greg Skidmore, Nick Perfect (bass).
‘When the choruses depicting the dramatic moments of the Passion of Christ are placed in context, and the chant sung with the exemplary sensitivity it is here, the music comes truly alive…. positively dazzling…. To this outstanding rendition of the Passion are added three motets, rounded off by the famous paean to music Musica Dei donum, whose text (‘Music, gift of God’) surely says what the performers on this collection must have been thinking as they sang’ (International Record Review)
‘A few years ago a rapt audience in the Oratory on Birmingham’s Hagley Road was riveted by the Ex Cathedra Consort’s performance of the St Matthew Passion by Orlande de Lassus. And now this SOMM recording of this High Renaissance work brings us this amazing reading, allowing us to savour anew its gripping emotional intensity. Nicholas Mulroy turns in an astonishing tour de force as the Evangelist… Greg Skidmore is the dignified Christus, and the Consort sings sonorously in the crowd’s block textures. Jeffrey Skidmore shapes the tension unerringly, and Lassus’ Ave Verum Corpus which follows comes as a soothing release.’ (The Birmingham Post)
‘… ravishingly delivered account by the Ex Cathedra Consort… the superb engineering by Simon Eadon and Siva Oke’s fingertip-delicate production frame the sepulchral hues of the music to often sublime and moving effect… Counterpointing the five-voice texture of the crowd – which can be astonishingly intense in places – is the plainsong chant of the Evangelist-cum-narrator, sung with compassionate directness by tenor Nicholas Mulroy, and the poignantly delivered Jesus of baritone Greg Skidmore, both solo contributions balancing the deftly understated tone and often elaborate cadential rhetoric with adroitly measured sincerity… The mixed voices of the Ex Cathedra are superbly marshaled by Jeffrey Skidmore, delivering well-proportioned performances of quiet majesty that ride the emotional and rhythmic ebb and flow of Lassus’s music with almost liquescent ease… In all, a glorious disc of soft-toned, sober-hued music performed with consummate skill and a stirring sense of devotional intensity.’ (www.theclassicalreview.com)