Lassus: Prophetiae Sibyllarum

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LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: Prophetiae Sibyllarum; Missa Amor ecco colei; Magnificat Quant’in mille anni il ciel; Iustorum animae; Deficiat in dolore vita mea; Tristis est anima mea
PERFORMER: The Brabant Ensemble/Stephen Rice
CATALOGUE NO: Hyperion CDA67887

The Brabant Ensemble has a well-deserved reputation for the exploration of little-known musical gems. They do not disappoint here; from among Lassus’s 2000 works we are served up an enterprising smorgasbrod of familiar items mixed with the virtually unknown.
The familiar includes the Prophetiae Sibyllarum, a set of 12 ancient texts supposedly predicting Christ’s birth. These basically chordal settings require immaculate tuning (which we get), and declamatory flair (which we do not – compare this with the ‘rhetorical’ version on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi/Konrad Junghänel, 2004).
Moreover, throughout the CD the vocal production can be somewhat ‘pushed’, which leads to inflexible and stolid moments in the lower voices (as in ‘Sicut erat’ from the Magnificat, for example). The choir is at its best in the quieter penitential motets, especially the very fine Deficiat in dolore for which they provide a transfiguring and inspired performance, expertly recorded. The Missa Amor ecco colei  seems to be a premiere recording.
The liner notes tell us (improbably) that it is based on a song by Prospero Caetano (1611), but perhaps a better candidate is a setting of a similar text by Regnart (who knew Lassus) from 1581. The Ensemble negotiates the difficulties of this Mass very effectively, from the poised ‘conversations’ between pairs of voices throughout, to the endless melismas of the Benedictus requiring breath control rarely seen outside of diving competitions. Anthony Pryer