The Hilliard Ensemble: Lassus (ECM New Series 1658)


The Hilliard Ensemble

The Hilliard Ensemble
David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
John Potter tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Recorded November 1993, Boxgrove Priory, Chichester
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Of the more than 2000 works written by the Franco-Flemsih composer Orlande de Lassus (1532-1594), this benchmark recording by the Hilliard Ensemble encompasses two of his most significant. The plainchant that opens our hearts to the Missa Pro Defunctis provides a level foundation from which to rise slowly into vocal awareness. Like all great polyphonists, Lassus treats the word as flesh, stretching it over the skeleton of a life animated by divine breath. Yet within the godly body beats a heart of silence, and within that silence thrives the core faith through which this music is “visibly” recirculated. It proceeds from, and is written in honor of, the same font. Throughout every moment of the Mass’s conception, we are draped in a veil of obscurity, so that by the Agnus Dei we have shielded ourselves enough to handle a glimpse at the face of our Creator. The closing plainchant not only completes the circle, but spins it like a coin that never stops.

The Prophetiae Sibyllarum is Lassus’s ode to chromaticism, and introduces a unique set of textual and tonal colors that he would never visit again. Unexpected harmonic shifts draw straight lines amid a field of curves. At its densest moments, the Prophecies reach the profundity of Gesualdo, as in the inescapably gorgeous Sybilla Phrygia. These are decidedly secular pieces, constructed as they are around Pagan-influenced texts. Never content in staying in one territory for too long, they are constantly shifting between moods and colors, so that by the end one is left with a fractal of musical effect.

It seems that every new Hilliard Ensemble recording outdoes the last, and this is certainly no exception. Gordon Jones truly stands out here, as he brings a distinct airiness to his lines. The interplay between him and Rogers Covey-Crump in the Graduale of the Mass is astonishing, while David James shines through every turn of the Prophetiae. The music of Lassus would be a puzzle, were it not for the solutions etched upon its surface, as if it were glass and one need only turn it to catch the light the right way to see those inscriptions glowing in a litany of scars across the visage of time. Its meanings are the Alpha and Omega of creation, and duly so for the music created in their name.

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