Lasso: Lagrime di San Pietro

Lasso: Lagrime di San Pietro
Los Angeles Master Chorale, Grant Gershon, Peter Sellars 

Orlande de Lassus (or Orlando de Lasso, as he was referred to in the Barbican programme notes) ranks alongside Palestrina and Victoria as amongst the finest composers of the Renaissance. Born in the Hapsburg Netherlands around 1530, he travelled around many European centres of music before settling, aged about 26, in Munich in the court of the Duke of Bavaria where he stayed for the rest of his life, dying in 1594. He probably taught both the Gabrieli’s and attracted attention from many influential figures. He was ennobled by the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximillian II, and knighted by the Pope. His Lagrime di San Pietro (The Tears of St Peter) was composed in 1594, just weeks before his death. It is the culmination of his compositional career. It sets 20 of Luigi Tansillo’s poems reflecting on the remorse felt by Peter after his denial of Christ, and his memory of Christ’s response. The 20 poems are set in the form of madrigali spirituali, with a concluding Latin motet Vide homo, quae pro te patior. Number symbolism is strong. The 21 verses are composed for 7 voices, form 3 times 7 pieces, and move through 7 of the 8 church modes in order, omitting the 8th tone, but using the rare tonus peregrinus for the final motet. 

This performance was given by Los Angeles Master Chorale in a version choreographed by opera director Peter Sellars in his own distinctive style. Usually lasting about 80 minutes, it was stretched to about 90 minutes. Not only did the choir memorise all the text and music, but also the complex physical contortions that Sellars demanded. It was a remarkable achievement for the 21 singers (3 to a part), as was their ability to sing with such a commendable sense of consort while spread across a wide stage, and often singing with their back to the conductor, Grant Gershon, also relied on memory, and joining in some of the physical movements of the singers, notably crouching down low when the singers sank (or occasionally, collapsed) to the floor.

Visually it was an extraordinary sight, the 21 singers moving almost continuously whilst singing, sometimes en-masse, on other occasions each independently. This was the first time that Sellars had directed a staging of an a cappella work. In a rather toe-curlingly self-congratulatory pre-concert ‘discussion’ between conductor Grant Gershon and Peter Sellars, he opined that his powerful allegory “suggests that by taking responsibility and facing our past head-on, we can forge a more resolved and fulfilling future”. How that was depicted was beyond me, but I guess the final moving together and hugs at the end suggested that it all ended well (see video clip below).

It seems that the Sellars effect had pronounced consequences on the performance of the music, although it could just be the Los Angeles way of performing late Renaissance polyphony. There were many moments when the emotion seemed to take precedence over rhythmic pulse, with frequent changes of time and beat and a rather mannered performing style. I’m glad I saw it, but I was not convinced this was the most effective or sensitive way to performer music of such sublime beauty.