Written in 1594 and published posthumously in Munich the following year, the Lagrime de San Pietro was Orlando de Lassus’ final composition. Consisting of 20 sacred madrigals and a concluding motet, the work was dedicated to Pope Clement VIII just three weeks before the composer passed away, with the words: “I send and dedicate to Your Holiness with greatest reverence these tears of St Peter, which were composed some time ago by Luigi Tansillo and have been clothed in harmony by me for my personal devotion in my burdensome old age.”

Gallicantus
Gallicantus

The cycle is a symbolic numerical game, with the number seven playing a central role: there are seven voices, seven of the eight church modes are used, many movements are divisible into seven sections, and there are 21 movements (seven times the number of the Trinity). Seven plays a central role throughout Church doctrine: there are seven deadly sins, seven penitential psalms, seven sorrows of the Virgin Mary, and Peter suggests to Christ that his sinful brothers should be forgiven seven times, receiving the response that even “seventy times seven” acts of mercy would not be sufficient.

The texts, taken from Luigi Tansillo’s work of the same name, evoke the stages of remorse experienced by Peter following his threefold denial of Christ. Lassus sets the text syllabically, with communication of the text at the heart of the musical material.

In this Wigmore Hall concert, Gallicantus, singing one to a part and directed by Gabriel Crouch, enhanced the musical material with beautiful phrasing and diction, bringing the poignant words to life. As an all-male consort, Gallicantus have a rich, bass-heavy sound, underpinned by the wonderfully resonant William Gaunt, whose tone was always clear and precise, never growly. The interplay between countertenors Mark Chambers and David Allsopp, who were positioned antiphonally at each end of the group, was beautifully balanced, while the internal parts also had their moments to shine and were never lost in the texture.

Lassus takes full advantage of all the compositional techniques in his armoury, using interweaving polyphony, antiphonal writing and full-blooded homophony to paint the text with a variety of colour and texture. There were some stunning moments of rousing, full-voiced singing, really highlighting the power and blend of the singers. However, it was the quieter, more angelic moments which were a particular highlight for me. The contrast of mood for the thirteenth movement was beautiful and extremely moving.

The final motet, lying outside the harmonic plan of the cycle and based upon the tonus peregrinus or “wandering tone”, transcends the earthly state, and lifts us up out of the human pain felt throughout the earlier movements. This, however, does not provide release or consolation, as Christ rebukes his audience, in Latin rather than Italian; Philippe de Grève’s 13th-century text set with heartbreaking poignancy by Lassus.

This concert marks the release of a new recording of the Lagrime de San Pietro on the Signum Classics label, and, if today’s concert was anything to go by, it will definitely be worth listening to over and over again with renewed enjoyment and understanding of this complex masterpiece.

*****