Lassus: Missa pro defunctis; Prophetiae Sibyllarum

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COMPOSERS: Lassus
LABELS: ECM
WORKS: Missa pro defunctis; Prophetiae Sibyllarum
PERFORMER: Hilliard Ensemble
CATALOGUE NO: 453 841-2
From the outset, the Hilliard Ensemble strikes an arrestingly sombre tone with the bass intonation Memento mei Deus on its latest disc of music by Lassus. Dark colours persist with the exquisitely poised account of the Missa pro defunctis, published in 1578. Splendidly recorded in Boxgrove Priory’s richly resonant acoustics, these singers – with sensational control in both the chording and the hypnotic, slow-moving counterpoint – powerfully transmit Lassus’s exceptional ability to express the inner soul of the text. For example, they illustrate the confident religious belief expressed in the Graduale with remarkable tonal shading, while their astonishing textural variety elsewhere breathes living spirit into Lassus’s magnificent polyphony.

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The Prophetiae Sibyllarum demonstrate the intriguing absorption of ancient pagan culture into the Christian liturgy. The Hilliard Ensemble negotiates the complex tuning and outrageous dissonance in this curious and in many ways surprising work with consummate skill. But the result far exceeds mere vocal virtuosity. Its finely judged portrayal of the score’s balance between harmony and melodic line impressively conveys the music’s increasing stability from the disturbing harmonies and startling outbursts of the earlier sections (‘lumine’ in Sibylla Libyca for instance) to the optimistic prophecies of Christ’s birth in the final ones. Nicholas Rast