Jacobus Handl-Gallus was a first-rate Slovenian composer of the late renaissance who, for some reason, has long been confused with George Frederick Handel, a composer who did not even share the same century with him. In the 1990s, the group Singer Pur instituted the most extensive recording project of Handl-Gallus to date, recording all of Handl-Gallus' Moralia on three discs; ultimately this was released as a box set. Ars Musici's Jacobus Handl-Gallus: Moralia (Excerpts) is a selection taken from all three discs and totaling no less than 44 tracks. The Moralia, or Harmoniae Morales, were Handl-Gallus' final published compositions; the first three volumes were printed just before Handl-Gallus' early death at about age 41 in 1591 and the fourth was published by Handl-Gallus' brother just after. These short "morals" -- totaling 100 in number -- are musical settings of short epigrams or sayings in Latin, all of which have to do with philosophy; there was a cell of humanistic thinkers in Prague at the close of the century and this was likely Handl-Gallus' target audience. As non-sacred works that are essentially also non-secular -- or at least not written purely as entertainment -- these pieces are very unusual for their time; perhaps the closest things to them would be the Prophetiae Sibyllarum of Orlande de Lassus, though they are far briefer and have more of a sense of levity than Lassus' grim oracles.
In keeping with the humanistic spirit of the texts, Handl-Gallus draws from the example of the madrigal and is given to occasional Mannerism as one would expect with the madrigal just before the advent of the Baroque. Entertainment is not wholly out of the question; simulated animal noises are heard in "Qui cantum corvi cras imitator," cuckoos in "Permultos liceat cuculus," and the rat-a-tat of a drummer in a couple of pieces. While Handl-Gallus was certainly familiar with Italian style, these pieces come from Prague's most celebrated historic period, one that was wiped out by the Thirty Years' War, beginning nearly 30 years after Handl-Gallus' death. Singer Pur is decidedly on its best game here, and for six voice pieces it is joined by soprano Dorothee Mields and baritone Gordon Jones, which is definitely a good deal. The interpretations are crisp, alert, and close attention is paid to ensemble dynamics. Whether looking to get your feet wet with Handl-Gallus or desiring a sample of his wares in advance of purchasing the whole set, Ars Musici's Jacobus Handl-Gallus: Moralia (Excerpts) is satisfying in every respect except that the booklet notes only include the original Latin texts with a German language summary. Once what's inside is heard, however, one will realize the trade-off is worth it.