Lassus: Sacred Choral Music

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Lassus
LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: Sacred Choral Music
PERFORMER: Soloists; Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge; His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts/Andrew Nethsingha
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 0778

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Little of Lassus’s staggering output is recorded, misrepresenting his importance. He achieved early and lasting fame, and left behind more than 2,000 works. His range of techniques was as vast as his oeuvre. That he was bipolar perhaps helps account for his contradictory personae as a composer: a miniaturist obsessed with two-voice polyphony, he was also a sculptor of large homophonic blocks of sound. This disc’s programme, featuring largely premiere recordings, brilliantly captures the complexity of Lassus’s musical mind. The singers, however, don’t quite fulfil the programme’s promise, and they’re unequal to the instrumentalists’ panache.

The English choral tradition seemingly constrains the choir from fully exploiting Lassus’s celebrated talent for word-setting. Its execution is polished and the timbres are gorgeous, but we rarely get a sense of what the words mean. Seamless ensemble robs dissonances and rhythmic clashes of their spice. Episodes of high-impact rhetoric, such as the opening exordium of the motets, are just too polite – rather than exhorting, the vocalists merely suggest. But there are many highlights here too, such as the Magnificat ‘O che vezzosa aurora’. Made up of three-, four- and six-voice sections, the work allows the choir to display its sumptuous blend and precocious gift for shaping lines.

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His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts shine in this performance. Lassus thought his music equally appropriate for instruments and voice, and the ensemble shows us why. When solo, the players’ clarity of gesture makes their music speak. To add dimension to lines, the Sagbutts & Cornetts alternately shadow and pull away from the vocalists whom they double, movements which are deftly caught by the engineers. Despite its English choral gloss, this disc gives us a provocative glimpse into Lassus’s imagination. Berta Joncus