This is the latest in a group of highly acclaimed Hyperion releases from the pan-European male voice ensemble Cinquecento. Drawn from five different European countries, the group originated in Vienna in 2004. Their focus of interest is in sixteenth century less well-known choral repertoire from the courts of Imperial Austria. They also perform a varied range of Renaissance polyphony and, of late, have branched out into contemporary repertoire. This release features the music of Orlande de Lassus, one of the most prolific and influential composers of the late Renaissance, considered to be the chief representative of the mature polyphonic style of the Franco-Flemish school.
Whilst the authenticity of some of the masses attributed to Lassus is in doubt, there is no such shadow cast over the Missa super Dixit Joseph, the most substantial work here. It survives in a manuscript dated 1572, and was printed in 1607, some thirteen years after the composer’s death. It’s a parody mass, following a common practice at the time—a skilful adaptation of a pre-existing work. The work in question is the motet Dixit Joseph undecim fratribus suis, which, thankfully, is strategically placed before the mass. It relates the story of Joseph returning to Egypt and meeting his eleven brothers and his father Jacob, as recounted in Genesis.
Lassus could be harmonically daring, using chromaticism as an expressive device. In fact, his adventurous harmonies and unusual chromatic melodies were a novel aspect of his compositional arsenal, anticipating the music of Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613). In Timor et tremor, one of his best-known motets, there are sudden shifts in harmony, creating tension and highlighting the underlying angst of the music, vividly evoking ‘fear and trembling’.
Cinquecento are six in number, but generate a large, rich vibrant sound. Yet in Si bona suscepimus they are able to achieve a light, diaphanous texture. These are well-rehearsed readings of exceptional finesse and polish. Intonation is pristine, with technique and ensemble flawless. Listening to them, I felt no sense of routine, but freshness and spontaneity throughout. These are idiomatic, inspirational and persuasive accounts, which set the bar high.
Kloster Pernegg, Wadviertel, in Austria, their preferred venue, where they have recorded almost all their albums, is ideal. It offers a warm, resonant and spacious acoustic, which allows detail and delineation of the polyphonic lines to be heard with clarity and definition. I must just comment on the imaginative artwork of all their booklet covers, which I find vibrant, interesting and attractive. Booklet notes meet Hyperion’s usual high standards, and texts and translations are included. Lovers of Renaissance polyphony shouldn’t hesitate to acquire this.