LASSUS: Psalmi Davidis pœnitentiales

Certainly a special aura surrounds them, in part a result of the lavish
choirbooks in which they are preserved. The choirbooks are decorated with illuminations by
Hans Mielich showing Lasso and his Bavarian court ensemble. In contemporary comment the
humanist Samuel Quickelberg observed that Lasso

expressed the content so aptly with lamenting and plaintive melody, adapting where it was
necessary the music to the subject and the words, expressing the power of the different emotions, presenting the subject as if acted before the eyes, that one cannot know whether the sweetness of the emotions more adorns the plaintive melodies or the plaintive melodies the sweetness of the emotions. This kind of music they call musica reservata, and in it Orlandus proved the excellence of his genius to posterity just as marvelously as in his other works, which are almost innumerable.

This wonderfully rich description alerts the listener to the affective quality of the settings and,
through the reference to musica reservata, to their sensitive engagement of the text. (Musica
is a phrase that historically lacks clarity, though modern comment has frequently
associated it with rhetorical settings.)

In Lasso’s settings of the penitential psalms the generally dark texts inspire music that is often
austere, conveyed through his frequent recourse to syllabic writing, often in chordal homophony
that is movingly set in low, dark tessitura. Lasso’s emphasis on rhetoric is manifest in his careful
declamation of the text and his reflection of the words’ meaning. Both of these ideas are rooted
in humanist thinking and show Lasso attuned to progressive ideas. Yet significantly, his gestures
to clarify meaning here are not prone to overstatement, reflecting perhaps an additional
acknowledgment of the nature of the texts themselves.

The performance of Phillipe Herreweghe and his Collegium Vocale Gent are richly satisfying.
The ensemble sings with a sharp focus to the sound that nevertheless does not resist timbral
richness and warmth. They possess an unflaggingly beautiful blend and a sensitive capacity to
shape phrases with subtle dynamic inflection, and their declamatory passages show a natural
fluency. Some may be surprised to find the psalms rendered without colla parte instruments,
especially as one of the Mielich illuminations shows singers and an array of instruments
performing together. However, the austerity of penance is well served by the sparer forces;
certainly there is never a sense of anything lacking.

The penitential psalms are long. Given their length, Lasso seems especially concerned with
variety: full and reduced textures alternate as do passages of chordal homophony, free
counterpoint, and imitation. That said, the psalms ask an intense focus from the listener
approaching them aesthetically. This is perhaps a good reminder of the distance between the
devotional listening of the work’s original context and modern “concert” listening. In both cases,
however, the rewards are abundant.

Steven Plank

image_description=Roland de Lassus. Psalmi Davidis pœnitentiales
product_title=Roland de Lassus. Psalmi Davidis pœnitentiales.
product_by=Collegium Vocale Gent; Philippe Herreweghe, Director
product_id=Harmonia Mundi HMC 901831.32 [2CDs]