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Music review: Lassus and Daser (Tallis Scholars, Cadogan Hall)

27 October 2023

Fiona Hook encounters a Renaissance man


MOST music-lovers have heard of Orlande de Lassus. Fewer have heard of his predecessor as Kapellmeister to the Duke of Bavaria, Ludwig Daser. The Tallis Scholars’ London Cadogan Hall concert last month juxtaposed music by the two composers and posed the question: has Daser been unfairly eclipsed by his more famous successor?

The first half’s big work, Daser’s Missa Pater Noster, suggests that he was more than competent. It uses the by then old-fashioned technique of cantus firmus, a tune sung repeatedly throughout the work over which the other voices weave elaborate lines, but here the composer experiments with vocal texture — different vocal parts divide into three. The harmonies in the Benedictus are charmingly medieval. In the Credo, he adds a rich layer of intertextuality, introducing the Ave Maria chant, which reaches “Fruit of thy womb” against the Pater Noster’s “Deliver us from evil” and the Mass text’s “Was made man”. Very clever.

This is the group’s 50th-anniversary year, and the singing throughout, under the direction of their founder, Peter Phillips, exemplified the qualities for which they have become famous. Their tuning is immaculate, they blend beautifully, and they create a purity and clarity of sound, allowing every detail of the musical lines to be heard. The treble lines’ women sound like boys and sing like angels.

The evening began with Lassus’s Epiphany motet Omnes de Saba, in which the choir, divided in two, traded fragments of the text before recombining in a flurry of allelluias, a foretaste of the later Venetian style. To Lassus’s contemporaries, this was modern music.

Lassus pursued his avant-garde polychoral style in the Mass Bel’Amfitrit’altera, and the Easter motet Aurora lucis rutilat. Here, the style is more overtly Venetian: the two choirs sing to each other, combining only at moments of great intensity. Feeling, no doubt, that his material was too good to waste, Lassus reused it in the next work, the Magnificat Aurora lucis rutilat.

It is not clear why Duke Albrecht got rid of Daser. He was a Protestant in a Catholic court, but the Duke gave him a pension and a reference that got him a job elsewhere. Albrecht probably found his music old-fashioned and wanted an internationally famous musician instead.

The encore, Daser’s Fratres, sobrii estote show his mastery of the Venetian double-choir style. He could do it when he tried. Arguably, Daser, long overshadowed by his more brilliant contemporary, is overdue a move to the mainstream.

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