Sunday, March 27, 2011

Hans-Leo Hassler: Sacred and secular music

At my site, musica Dei donum, I usually only write about new recordings. As regularly interesting recordings are reissued I use this weblog to bring some of them to your attention. This time it is a set of two discs with music by Hans-Leo Hassler (1564-1612).

Hans-Leo Hassler worked almost his whole life in southern Germany, which in the second half of the 16th century was one of the cultural centres of Europe. He was born in Nuremberg as son of an organist, and had two brothers who also became musicians. They were all trained as organists, and all three were connected for some time with the influential and wealthy Fugger family. Although they were also active as composers only Hans-Leo Hassler has written compositions in almost any genre in vogue at the time. The two discs to be reviewed here give a broad survey of his oeuvre which comprises sacred music in Latin and in German, secular vocal music on German and Italian texts as well as instrumental music.

Hassler received his first music lessons from his father. At the time Leonhard Lechner, pupil of Orlandus Lassus, was archimusicus in Nuremberg. It seems likely he had some influence on the young Hassler, although there is no firm evidence that he ever was Lechner's pupil. In 1584 Hassler went to Venice where he became a pupil of Andrea Gabrieli. He also became acquainted with Giovanni Gabrieli and with Claudio Merulo, one of Italy's greatest organ virtuosos. He didn't stay for long, though, as in 1585 Andrea Gabrieli died and Hassler returned to Germany. In Augsburg he took up the position of Cammerorganist of one of the members of the Fugger family. It is with this family that he was connected almost his entire life. In 1608 he moved to Dresden where he first became chamber organist and then took up the duties of Kapellmeister. Soon he was hit by tuberculosis which caused his death in 1612.

The influence of what Hassler had heard and learned in Venice is noticeable in his music. Several pieces are set for eight voices in two groups, and in his motets for six parts Hassler also makes use of the cori spezzati technique in that he splits the six voices into a high and a low 'choir'. Even in his secular music he makes use of this procedure.

At the end of the 16th century there is a growing amount of text expression. That is clearly noticeable in the music of Orlandus Lassus, and this disc contains various examples of Hassler fitting in with this fashion.

The multireligious landscape in the region where Hassler worked is reflected in his oeuvre which comprises pieces for the Roman Catholic liturgy as well as compositions which are reflecting the liturgical reforms of Martin Luther. The latter aspect comes to the fore in, for instance, Hertzlich lieb hab ich dich, one of the most famous German protestant hymns. The last stanza, 'Ach Herr, laß dein liebe Engelein' was used by Bach at the end of his St John Passion. A Passion hymn turns up where one wouldn't expect it: Mein Gmüth ist mir verwirret was later to be used for the famous text O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden.

The secular part of this recording is equally interesting. There is quite a lot of text expression, and the madrigals by Hassler are often no less expressive than those of his Italian contemporaries. A title like Lustgarten (pleasure garden), as a collection of secular pieces of 1601 was called, suggests light-hearted pieces. The exalted Tantzen und springen certainly belongs to that category, but the above-mentioned Mein Gmüth ist mir verwirret most definitely not: "My mind is all confused, and the cause is a sweet maiden". The Canzonette of 1590 are also less cheerful than one might expect: "I feel - alas! - that I am dying", "I fled through woods, forests and across mountains (...) so as not to feel Cupid's sharp arrows" and "O you who gives me pain".

The variety and consistently excellent quality of Hassler's oeuvre is impressively demonstrated by this recording. The sacred pieces are performed by the vocal ensemble which comprises 20 singers. As the tracklist doesn't give information about which musician participates in the various pieces I can't tell whether they were all involved in every piece. But given the fact that chapels in the south of Germany were mostly not small a performance with more than one voice per part seems plausible. The extensive use of instruments is also justified; they give support to the voices or replace some of them. The ensemble is quite colourful, with recorder, cornett, three sackbuts, two renaissance violins, two viols, violone, lute, theorbo, organ and percussion. They also participate in the secular pieces, which are mostly sung with one voice per part. That is a most sensible decision: these pieces are meant to be sung at home and in social gatherings, and a choir would be inappropriate here. Only the acoustic in the secular repertoire could have been more intimate: the reverberation is a bit too large.

The level of the performances is high: the singing and playing is excellent. The delivery is as good as one can expect in polyphony. Erik Van Nevel has found the right approach to this repertoire in regard to dynamics and articulation: there is less legato singing than is necessary in earlier music. There is also more dynamic gradation and more attention to specific elements in the text, but not so much as to suggest this is a kind of 'baroque' music.

There are only a couple of disappointments in these performances. Nos autem populus ejus is the second part of the motet Jubilate Deo, omnis terra. It would have been better to perform the whole motet, and it should have been mentioned in the booklet that it is only partially performed. The same can be said of the hymn Auß tieffer noth. Likewise the second part of the madrigal Vattene pur crudel has been omitted, again without making mention of it. Difficult to justify is also the Italian pronunciation of Latin in the motets.

But those are very minor blots on a production which deserves the full attention of every lover of renaissance music. The booklet doesn't give recording dates, and as the discs give 2010 as the year of production and copyright one may think these are recent recordings. But a look into the catalogue of my local public library revealed these discs were first released separately by the small Belgian label Eufoda in 1999 and 2000 respectively. That may have been the reason they have never received the attention they most certainly deserve. At that time very few of Hassler's music was available on disc, and unfortunately not much has changed since. This production underlines Hassler's importance and the variety and quality of his output.

Hans-Leo Hassler: Sacred and secular music
Currende/Erik Van Nevel
Recorded 1999 and 2000
Et'cetera - KTC 1409 1409