The Tallis Scholars
========= from the cover ==========
Although Orlandus Lassus (1532-1594) is perhaps the most celebrated late renaissance composer, the few recordings of his music do not give an adequate impression of his achievement. His output was so diverse and so prolific it is hard to know where to begin. For the sacred music enthusiast, the obvious place is his Mass-settings, though these have long been considered inferior works. There is some truth in this point of view where Lassus' early four-part settings are concerned; but the later six-and eight-voiced settings are as fine as any of the period. Indeed there is a wealth of material yet to be explored in this category of Lassus' writing, and I believe that the three double-choir Masses will come to be seen as the most challenging pieces in it. These are Rell'Amfitrit altera, Vinum bonum and Osculetur me.
Lassus must have learnt the technique of writing double-choir antiphonal music in Italy, since he would not have come across this method of text-setting in his native Flanders. Flemish composers held uninterrupted counterpoint (and especially eight-part counterpoint) to be the highest art; there is no double-choir music by Flemish composers who stayed in Flanders from this period, though there are examples of eight-part music (one of the finest being Clemcns's Pater peccavi, recorded on CDGIM 013). This style of writing, which leads to the most subtle and intimate expression, is at the opposite extreme from most antiphonal music, which aims to impress the listener by sheer size. In musical terms (he difference between them is between music conceived horizontally, which is the essence of counterpoint, and vertically, as with most Italian baroque music. However even here it is difficult to make generalisations ab.oul Lassus: while the Mass and motet Osculeiur me fall into the latter category, many of the other pieces recorded here come into the former.
The danger with double-choir writing is that its massive effects can lose their power for the listener after the first hearing. This is often the case with the first Venetian experiments in the form, and, in overcoming this problem, Lassus holds an important place in the early development of Italian baroque style. Osculeiur me is a fine example of how he turned this new method of composition to his own ends, possibly acting as a model even to the Venetian composer Andrea Gabrieli, who visited him in Munich in the 1560s.
In the motet Osculetur me. the main strengths of the Mass are already apparent: quite long phrases for each choir, so that brief counterpoint is possible; a strong difference in sonority between passages for one choir and those for both choirs together (not always the case in Venetian music of this period); a succession of phrases which have audibly contrasting moods and contours (for instance the sensuous writing at "oleum effusum nomen tuum" and the close antiphony of "Trahe me post te"). The advantage is that while in the motet these contrasts are suggested by the words, when he came to set the Mass Lassus had a powerful set of motifs to distribute about the text. The antiphony already described at "Trahe me post te" is superbly used in almost every movement of the Mass, and never better than in the second Kyrie where Lassus unexpectedly raised the final statement a third, even thinking to syncopate the soprano entry. Elsewhere he showed that he could, just as wrell as Palestrina, rewrite or extend the music of his model in the most sophisticated parody treatment. The quartet that begins at "Crucifixus" is the most remarkable example; but the opening bars of the "Sanctus'' and the "Agnus Dei" show the same technique. The "Benedictus" seems to be newly composed altogether.
Of the motets recorded here the Salve regina belongs to the same musical tradition as Osculetur me. The power of this setting relies more than usual with Lassus on the underlying harmony (for instance the suspensions on "O clemens"). Alma Redemptoris Mater also makes use of the double-choir arrangement, though in fact the piece comes close at times to the Flemish tradition of eight-part counterpoint, with its characteristic intimacy. The two other Marian motets, Ave Regina caelorum and Regina caeli, are in six and seven parts respectively and must count among Lassus' finest achievements. Hodie completi sunt, in six parts, is an intense contrapuntal piece, sung here by men's voices at written pitch, though there would be a case for transposing it up and using sopranos. It has two halves which are linked by common material for the word "AlleIuia". Timor et tremor is justly famed for its extraordinary chromatic language. Written in six parts, it was originally published in 1564 as part of an anthology entitled 'Thesaurus Musicus.' It is not the only early work by I.assus to explore the chromatic scale (the Prophetiae Sibyllarum come from the same period), but since they predate Gesualdo's similar experiments by several decades it is strange that Lassus made almost no further use of these otherworldly and fascinating sounds in his compositions. Timor et tremor is one of the most compact of all renaissance chromatic motets, finishing with breathtaking syncopation in the first soprano part.