Listening to the first four measures of the prologue to Orlando di Lasso’s Prophetiae Sibyllarum, it’s understandable that one might think “Gesualdo”, given the striking, unexpected shift from C major to C-sharp minor. And there are many more such bold harmonic exploits throughout the 12 subsequent four-voice movements of these Sibyl prophecies. The only problem with this proposed association is that in the 1550s, when these works were written, Gesualdo as a stylistic rebel hadn’t yet been invented, let alone born (circa 1560). At the time serious debate was ongoing concerning the function of intervallic relationships, intonation, and harmony in musical composition, and Lasso was not confined to nor obligated by what in later generations were accepted theoretical conventions.
In the center of the program are a Magnificat and three motets, each more gorgeous than the last. And the last, the five-voice Tristis est anima mea, is one of those works so compelling vocally and emotionally that there is no question of hitting the repeat button, probably more than once. The disc concludes with a Mass, the Missa Amor ecco colei, with divided soprano and tenor parts. It’s a magnificent example of Lasso’s facility for word-setting integrated with interesting melodic ideas and rich, vibrant harmonies.
Of course, the vitality and expressive effect of these works owes much to the dozen (more or less) singers of The Brabant Ensemble, a young-voiced British group that specializes in Renaissance sacred music. The sound is closer to the warm, multi-hued glint of The Sixteen than to the Tallis Scholars’ more austere, primary colored quality. But whatever your preference, these singers never fail to make beautiful music, attending to each element of form, substance, texture, and text to enliven and enlighten our experience of these often surprising, deeply affecting works. Highly recommended.