Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612) is not so well known as he should be. It's well worth the effort, though, to familiarize yourself with his music and understand its context in the world of the German Renaissance. Hassler was one of the first (north) German composers to journey to Italy – Venice in particular – to study with the Gabrielis. Indeed, on first hearing the sensuous and lyrical unaccompanied choral polyphonic music on this CD one could be forgiven for thinking it was written by an Italian composer were it not for the language of the texts.
Even there, Hassler's music often elevates the sound and lushness of the voice above suiting vocal line and harmonic inference to meaning. Not that there's anything lacking, trite or superficial in the dozen or so shortish (the CD contains just under an hour's music) items contained on this reissue of an anthology which was first released in 1992. You will be struck by the flourishes, articulated lines of melodic development and at the same time the directness and economical settings of the motets and songs; as well as by the measured solemnity yet lightly accomplished nature of the mass, "Ecce quam bonum". Typically, that too is composed homophonically.
Although the influences of Lassus, Andrea Gabrieli and Merulo are evident, there is a freshness to Hassler's simple and transparent phrasing that bespeaks real originality. The Regensburger Domspatzen under Georg Ratzinger are clearly more than merely "comfortable" with this idiom. They have absorbed its nuances and subtleties in their interpretations; and they have enough empathy with the styles actively to communicate something of the essence of Hassler to us. By being perfectly in tune with the composer's sheer vitality, they have succeeded on this CD in conveying his own music for what it is, as opposed to passively offering it as a sampler of an era or genre. That's welcome.
In addition to the mass, one of the more remarkable items on this CD is the "Lauretanische Litanei", a series of lines effectively piling one compliment after another on the mother of Christ. Despite the repetition, Hassler shows no lack of originality. The Regensburger Domspatzen have all the insight and deftness to make the longest single movement on the CD impactful but not garish. It should be noted in passing that the Regensburger Domspatzen was founded over a thousand years ago in 975. Although a boys', rather than adults', choir, their stylish and somewhat understated approach to this music is very convincing.
The CD comes with an informative and well-written essay in the booklet, which contains all the music's texts – in German, and Latin with German (but no English) translations. The acoustic is resonant without being roomy… ideal for the repertoire. Even if there were really several other recordings dedicated to these works in the current catalog, this would be a CD to investigate for its clarity and persuasive interpretive strengths. Ars Musici has done us good service by making the collection available. Recommended.
Copyright © 2010, Mark Sealey.