Bo Holten’s Return to Early Music

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Program: #18-22   Air Date: May 21, 2018

The Danish composer and conductor has a great range of interests; happily early music is one. His latest CDs with his ensemble Music Ficta feature music of Gesualdo and the Lassus St. Matthew Passion. All of the music on this program comes from the recent early music work of Bo Holten: Upon completing his studies in musicology at the University of Copenhagen and bassoon at the Royal Academy of Music, Bol Holten established his reputation as a conductor of early music vocal groups, first with Ars Nova which he formed in 1979 and later with Musica Ficta formed in 1996. He has an international reputation as a leading specialist in early music, especially in vocal polyphony. Musica Ficta have proved to be a dominant force in Danish musical life and one of the finest vocal ensembles in Europe having given over 250 concerts and theatre performances, and released multiple recordings. Bo Holten has been a guest conductor with a wide range of ensembles and choirs in Scandinavia and abroad, and in 2007 he was appointed chief conductor of the Flemish Radio Choir. He has composed over 100 works including symphonies, solo concertos, works for chorus and orchestra, operas, and musicals. He has also written works for chamber ensembles, song cycles, and pieces for percussion ensemble, as well as scores for films and television series. Among his most widely performed works are the 30 a cappella works which span his composing career. In autumn 2014, Bo Holten staged his second Gesualdo opera Gesualdo – Shadows, and in 2018 he completed his grand opera on Martin Luther, Schlagt sie tot!

I & III Lassus: St. Matthew Passion (Musica Ficta/Bo Holten). Naxos CD 8.573840.

Orlandus Lassus was one of the greatest and most celebrated musicians of his day, and a teacher whose influence extended into the Baroque period and beyond. Although the St Matthew Passion is almost always associated with J.S. Bach’s towering masterpiece, earlier settings developed from plainchant into polyphony throughout the 16th century. Lassus composed four Passions of which this is the most elaborate. His sublimely interwoven polyphonic settings are here placed alongside a traditional Roman Catholic Passion chant through which the roles of Jesus and the Evangelist unfold in a seemingly timeless meditation. Certain key moments in the otherwise austere Passion story are further illuminated in this recording by the inclusion of motets and a spiritual madrigal.
From MusicWeb International: What Holten has attempted is not so much a reconstruction of what Lassus’ music might have sounded like when sung in Munich in 1575 but rather what he thinks ‘might be a way of making Lassus’ wonderful music accessible to a modern audience, making its natural and reticent telling of the story easy and appealing to follow’.

Be aware that despite Holten’s presentation, Lassus’ St Matthew Passion is very different from Bach’s masterpiece. It’s closer to the near-plainsong style of the early renaissance settings such as Richard Davy’s St Matthew Passion, contained in the Eton Choirbook. What Holten has done, however, is to set Lassus’ beautiful polyphonic choral music within the plainchant setting. Sample, if you can, track 16, the inserted Good Friday motet Animam meam dilectam tradidi (I have betrayed my beloved soul into the hands of the wicked). He even includes an excerpt from Lassus’ Italian madrigal collection Lagrime di San Pietro (Tears of Saint Peter) at the appropriate point midway through the narrative. 

That may well set you in search of the complete Lagrime, also very well performed by Bo Holten, with Ars Nova, on an earlier Naxos release (8.553311). 

It’s not clear why Lassus’ passion settings are so sparse, but this recording insets into the rather austere chant polyphonic jewels of great beauty, all rounded off with a performance of Agnus Dei. Austere settings of Passiontide music can be very moving, as in the case of Schütz’s St Matthew Passion, almost a century later (1666), but I found the pairing of austerity and beauty on the new Naxos Lassus recording extremely effective.

It’s less clear why Holten has decided to divide the music after the excerpt from Lagrime di San Pietro between the events of Maundy Thursday and those of Good Friday. There is no liturgical reason to do so: the St Matthew Passion would have been recited on Palm Sunday and the St John on Good Friday. There was no Passion reading at Mass on Maundy Thursday, the gospel for that day referring to the blessing of the oils.

That’s a minor niggle when the performances and recording are so good. Having listened in very decent mp3 via Naxos Music Library, I was pleased that the CD-quality press preview sounded even better. The full text and translation are included but that seems to have reduced the space for Bo Holten’s notes to just one side; I would have liked more.

The supposedly inviolable 80-minute limit for CDs was breached some time ago, but I don’t remember one so long as this. It’s certainly not a question of ‘never mind the quality; feel the width’, but it’s good to have this austere but beautiful setting, enlivened with polyphony, in very fine performances and all contained on a CD running to over 88 minutes. 

Passio Domini nostri Jesu Christi secundum Mattheum
1. Passio Domini nostri Jesu Christi (Evangelist, Jesus, Priest) 00:02:14
2. Ut quid perditio haec (Chorus, Evangelist, Jesus) 00:02:41
3. Quid vultis mihi dare et ego vobis eum tradam (Judas, Evangelist) 00:01:03
4. Ubi vis paremus (Chorus, Evangelist, Jesus) 00:02:17
5. Numquid ego sum, Domine (Chorus, Evangelist, Jesus) 00:01:48
6. Numquid ego sum rabbi (Judas, Evangelist, Jesus) 00:02:37
7. Expectans expectavi Dominum (Chorus) 00:01:37
8. Et hymno dicto exierunt (Evangelist, Jesus) 00:01:21
9. Et si omnes scandalizati fuerint in te (Petrus, Evangelist, Jesus) 00:01:04
10. Etiam si oportuerit me mori tecum (Petrus, Evangelist, Jesus) 00:01:40
11. Tristis est anima mea (Chorus) 00:03:13
12. Et progressus pusillum procidit (Evangelist, Jesus) 00:04:40
13. Qui vult venire post me (Chorus) 00:02:03
14. Quemcumque osculatus fuero (Judas, Evangelist) 00:00:40
15. Ave rabbi (Judas, Evangelist, Jesus) 00:04:07
16. Animam meam dilectam tradidi (Chorus) 00:05:37
17. At illi tenentes Iesum (Evangelist) 00:01:21
18. Hic dixit possum destruere templum Dei (Chorus, Evangelist) 00:00:40
19. Nihil respondes ad ea (Priest, Evangelist) 00:00:44
20. Adiuro te per Deum vivum (Priest, Evangelist, Jesus) 00:01:23
21. Blasphemavit quid adhuc egemus testibus (Priest, Evangelist) 00:00:43
22. Reus est mortis (Priest, Evangelist) 00:00:33
23. Prophetiza nobis Christe (Priest, Evangelist) 00:00:39
24. Et tu cum Iesu Galilaeo eras (Ancilla, Evangelist) 00:00:27
25. Nescio quid dicis (Petrus, Evangelist) 00:00:30
26. Et hic erat cum Iesu Nazareno (Ancilla, Evangelist) 00:00:44
27. Vere et tu ex illis (Chorus, Evangelist) 00:01:47

Show Details Lagrime di San Pietro: No. 3. Tre volte havev'a
28. Lagrime di San Pietro: No. 3. Tre volte havev'a 00:02:28

Show Details Passio Domini nostri Jesu Christi secundum Mattheum
29. Mane autem facto (Evangelist, Judas) 00:01:24
30. Quid ad nos tu videris (Priest, Evangelist) 00:00:50
31. Non licet mittere eos in corbanan (Priest, Evangelist) 00:01:45
32. Tu es rex Iudaeorum (Pilatus, Evangelist, Jesus) 00:00:56
33. Non audis quanta adversum te dicant testimonia (Pilatus, Evangelist) 00:01:09
34. Quem vultis dimittam vobis (Pilatus, Evangelist) 00:00:48
35. Nihil tibi et iusto illi (Pilate's wife, Evangelist) 00:00:59
36. Quem vultis vobis (Pilatus, Evangelist) 00:00:25
37. Barabbam! (Chorus, Evangelist) 00:00:21
38. Quid igitur faciam de Iesu (Pilatus, Evangelist) 00:00:27
39. Crucifigatur! (Chorus, Evangelist) 00:00:18
40. Quid enim mali fecit (Pilatus, Evangelist) 00:00:22
41. Crucifigatur! (Chorus, Evangelist) 00:00:32
42. Innocens ego sum (Pilatus, Evangelist) 00:00:37
43. Sanguis eius super nos (Chorus, Evangelist) 00:01:40
44. Ave rex Judaeorum (Chorus, Evangelist) 00:03:03
45. Vah, qui destruit templum (Chorus, Evangelist) 00:01:07
46. Alios salvos fecit Helias (Priest, Evangelist, Jesus) 00:03:17
47. Heliam vocat iste (Chorus, Evangelist) 00:00:44
48. Sine videamus an veniat Helias (Chorus, Evangelist) 00:00:55
49. Agnus Dei (Chorus) 00:02:20
50. Et ecce velum temple (Evangelist) 00:01:02
51. Vere Dei Filius erat iste (Chorus, Evangelist) 00:01:04
52. Mors tua, mors Christi (Chorus) 00:05:26
53. Cum autem sero factum (Evangelist) 00:03:29
54. Agnus Dei (Chorus) 00:02:33

II.  Gesualdo Madrigals (Musica Ficta/Bo Holten). Danacord CD DACOCD 760.

This new release with the Danish Copenhagen early music ensemble Musica Ficta under conductor Bo Holten was recorded in a live concert Nov. 18 in Bari, Italy. After the concert the following praise was given: “As I told you, I've heard lots of groups sing Gesualdo, many of them very, very good. But I would rank yours right at the top. It was absolutely splendid, and for that you have my eternal thanks.” (Glenn Watkins, leading Gesualdo scholar). The intensity of the performance and the stylish and vocally superb musicianship shines through with full force. Early music ensemble Musica Ficta is the leading Danish expert group in the field of early music. Their recordings consistently receive high ratings from critics and audiences, and their concerts continuously delight fans.

Se la mia morte brami,Beltà poi che t'assenti,
Mille volte il di moro,
»Io parto« e più non dissi Libro 1 - O dolce mio martire Libro 3 - »Non t_amo«, o voce ingrate,
Meraviglia d'Amore Libro 4 - Luci serene,
Il sol qual or più splende Libro 5 - Dolcissima mia vita,
grido piangendo,
Se vi duol il mio duolo,
Asciugate i begli occhi Libro 6 - Mille volte il di moro,
Se la mia morte brami,
Beltà poi che t'assenti, »Io parto« e più non dissi

Composer Info

Orlandus Lassus, Gesualdo

CD Info

Naxos CD 8.573840, CD DACOCD 760