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Lasso's Tears

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Lasso, Le Lagrime di San Pietro, Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal, C. Jackson

(released on September 28, 2010)
ATMA ACD2 2509 | 52'48"

Online score:
Le Lagrime di San Pietro
There is something special about a composer’s last creations, as we have noted many times before. At the end of a celebrated career, Orlando di Lasso (1532-1594) appears to have suffered a stroke, its symptoms perhaps exacerbating the mood swings of his already unpredictable personality. He composed yet one more masterpiece, completed just weeks before his death, a setting of about half of the verses of Luigi Tansillo’s Le lagrime di San Pietro, a dramatization of the anguish experienced by Saint Peter following his betrayal of Christ. Using the exemplar of courtly love poetry, evoking the heat-then-ice contrasts of earthly passion, Tansillo created stanzas that were perfectly suited to the dramatic genre of the Italian madrigal, as emotion-filled glances are exchanged between condemned Lord and terrified apostle. Apparently in a gesture intended to seek pardon for his own sinful life – even his employer, the Duke of Bavaria, had censured him for inappropriate behavior – Lassus dedicated the work to Pope Clement VIII, the successor of Peter in Rome.

The 18th stanza may have had particular resonance with Lassus, evoking the regret of old age: “My faith would not have encountered so arduous an obstacle / […] If the years and too long a life / Had not borne away with them perception and memory.” Jesus, of course, responds in Latin: Lassus added the 21st stanza, not found in Tansillo’s collection, to the end of his setting. This text refers to the classic Gregorian text for Good Friday O vos omnes, addressed to the witnesses of the Passion, “see if any pain is like my pain.” It personalizes those words, speaking directly to the listener and not just to Peter: “Behold, man, what I suffer for you: I cry unto you, for whom I die.” The musical style is quite simple but not severe, basically homophonic, although with seven parts to work with Lassus creates some limited imitation that enlivens the texture and an approximation of polychoral dialogue between groups of voices. All movements are in the same basic meter, have roughly the same number of tactus groupings (the timing of each movement is surprisingly uniform, at just over two minutes), and are in a series of related keys. Unlike some of his earlier experiments with chromatic harmony, Lassus keeps his harmonic movement fairly limited, using few accidentals.

This fine performance by the Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal, with ten voices spread out over the seven parts, is beautifully captured but certainly not the only one available. The group's director, Christopher Jackson, does decide to stick to voices only, where other groups -- like Livio Picotti and La Capella Ducale Venetia (cpo) and Erik Paul Van Nevel and the Huelgas Ensemble (Sony), which are both quite good and for about the same price -- double some or all parts with instruments. The singing here is stronger and more balanced than what is heard in the recording by the Ars Nova Vocal Ensemble (Naxos, not worth the discount), and on par with the excellent recording by Philippe Herreweghe and his Ensemble Vocal Européen, hard to find now except as an MP3 download with less satisfying sound (again, probably not worth the discount). Some of the parts in the Montréal recording seem hazy or off in the distance, especially at the top of the texture, but it is a rounded and smooth ensemble sound that is easy on the ears.

1 comment:

MWnyc said...

Hi Charles -

One correction you might want to make: The Huelgas Ensemble is directed by Paul van Nevel.

Erik directs the ensemble Currende. They've recorded Lassus, but not, as far as I can tell, the Lagrime.