HERREWEGHE AND COLLEGIUM VOCALE GENT FIND A CONSUMING RADIANCE IN LAGRIME DI SAINT PIETRO
Collegium Vocale Gent (Dorothee Mields and Barbora Kábatková, sopranos, Benedict Hymas, alto, Thomas Hobbs and Tore Denys, tenors, Benoit Arnould, baritone, Jimmy Holliday, bass); Phillipe Herreweghe, conductor: Lasso, Lagrime di Saint Pietro, Chan Centre, April 15, 2016.
When one thinks of the greatest spiritual masterpieces of music, one naturally gravitates to works such as Bach’s Passions and Masses, which take the listener through a very definite sequence of dramatic peaks and troughs in presenting their story. Yet, if one considers Bach’s exalted Art of the Fugue, the peaks and troughs seldom appear; rather, it is the cumulative strength of the composer’s flow of genius over extended, but relatively uniform, material that takes one to the highest spiritual reaches. Orlando di Lasso’s Lagrime di San Pietro (1594), a set of 20 short madrigali spirituali plus motet, is a 16th century masterpiece of polyphony that casts its spell in the latter way. While each madrigal is a refined and balanced gem, it is the austere weaving together of the whole that suspends one. There could be no greater honour than to have Philippe Herreweghe conduct the work with the ensemble that he founded in the earliest days of authentic performance: the Collegium Vocale Gent. Herreweghe’s long-praised recording of two decades ago for Harmonia Mundi still retains its ‘reference’ status.
The Lagrime di San Pietro (The Tears of Saint Peter) was composed just before Lasso’s death, and finds the composer in an understandably penitent mood, setting carefully chosen texts from the poet Luigi Tansillo (1510-1568). The number ‘seven’ is critical to the construction of the work: it employs seven soloists and seven of the eight church modes, many of the movements are divisible into seven sections, and the movements total to the divisible number 21. The act of penitence in turn requires cognizance of the seven deadly sins, seven sorrows of the Virgin Mary, and so on. The depictions of the tears of Peter start in madrigal #9 and continue to #13, while the remaining madrigals convey the desire to receive punishment by death. Each madrigal is just over 2 minutes long and develops in line with Tansillo’s text, emphasizing speech rhythms and the possibilities for dialogue between alternating voicings. It eschews ornamentation. The final motet Vide Homo consciously departs from the seven modes explored earlier, and seeks a tonus peregrinus, possibly employed to illustrate the final transition to the celestial.
It would be difficult to find a more beautifully clean, refined sound than we heard here. Each voice was conveyed in its own tonal space yet also meshed perfectly with the rest of the ensemble. One evident dimension of Herreweghe’s approach is the lyrical flow he establishes over the whole, while still keeping rhythm and detail very precise. Moreover, he has a great ability to find, and mesh, different ‘blocks’ or ‘layers’ of sound, and to carry on their resonance consistently as the work proceeds. This reinforces unity and architectural strength. With singers as illustrious as Dorothy Mields leading the sopranos, there could be few questions about the solo credentials of each the seven vocalists, and it was as redeeming to hear their pure individual timbres as it was to hear their finely-honed blend. This was always singing of genuine feeling, and the blend on long sustained notes was ravishing.
One enjoys this music without looking for an explicit structural or emotional peak. The work remains consistently austere, yet is always in motion through its stream of counterpoint. It is the ongoing sequence of moments of refined, timeless beauty -- mainly free of explicit pain yet unearthing many emotional shadings -- which creates the glow and radiance for the listener. While the six madrigals starting from #9 do involve dramatic elements, the sound architecture likely remains as involving than the dramatic details even here. There is a mixture of wonder and determination, with lovely imagery, in #9, and #13 has definite gravity, though little sense of angst, since almost all phrases are legato, and tenderness is often the keynote. After the transient tensions of #15, the work settles into a unique feeling of contemplation and space, where a consuming lyrical flow carries it to the end. Many subtleties are implicit in this undulating fabric: sometimes strength and nobility; other times, a tender, confessional tone. I should remark just how well the inexorability of these final pages was put in place, and just how beautifully-shaded and flexible was the singing in the closing motet.
This was the final concert of the season for Early Music Vancouver, and there could not have been a better way to cap off an absolutely splendid season.
© Geoffrey Newman 2016