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Briefly Noted: Magnificat Settings

available at Amazon
Lasso, Magnificat Settings, Die Singphoniker

(released on January 8, 2016)
cpo 777957-2 | 64'16"
Die Singphoniker, an all-male vocal ensemble based in Munich, has flown under the Ionarts radar thus far. The group's latest release, an intriguing set of Magnificat settings by late Renaissance composer Orlando di Lasso, brings them into these pages for the first time, even though they have been singing medieval and Renaissance music, as well as less interesting material, for thirty years. Lasso was a Franco-Flemish singer and composer, but he traveled around Europe as a young man, ultimately settling in the Catholic court of the Duke of Bavaria, in Munich, in his 30s. He flourished there for almost forty years, producing a sizable corpus of polyphonic compositions, including over one hundred settings of the Magnificat, the Latin canticle from the Gospel of Luke sung near the end of the service of Vespers.

The six Magnificat settings on this disc reflect the alternatim practice, and the (in most cases) lower voices of the ensemble have a beautiful sound on the plainchant of the canticle's odd-numbered verses. Rather than creating polyphony based on the canticle tone, in these settings (and about 35 other ones in the Lasso output) Lasso adapted the polyphonic pieces of other composers for the even-numbered verses, an "imitation" process (rather than "parody") practiced by many composers in settings of the Mass Ordinary. The source works are both secular (madrigals by Cipriano de Rore, Jacquet de Berchem, Anselmo de Rieux, and Philippe Verdelot) and sacred, and they range from the sublime — Josquin's outstanding six-voice motet Praeter rerum seriem stands out, with tenor Gerhard Hölzle joining the group for the six-part pieces, as does Lasso's work derived from it with its triple-meter "Seculorum amen" section — to the insipid (Claudin de Sermisy's ditty Il est jour dit l'alouette, or It is Day Says the Lark). Also performing the six source pieces satisfies musicological curiosity, even if it does mean fewer Magnificat settings.

The group has an excellent sound, with the normal reservations about countertenors on the upper parts. It is not an ideal situation, albeit historically accurate in many cases. It is also appropriate to have recorded these pieces in Munich, albeit in a Lutheran church that stands in for the court chapel.

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