Orlande de Lassus' Psalmi Davidis Poenitentiales (Penitential Psalms of David) is the Renaissance master's setting of seven Davidic psalms -- 6, 31, 37, 50, 101, 129, and 142 -- sometimes referred to as the "psalms of confession." As the result of a proclamation of Pope Innocent III, who died in 1216, these particular psalms are read during Lent, so their liturgical application is obvious. Yet that does not mean that Lassus' 1584 publication of these pieces represented the most commercial venture he could have undertaken, indeed, closer to their 1559 date of composition, Lassus' employer Duke Albrecht V of Munich had them copied out into a giant and expensive manuscript, illustrated by court painter Hans Mielich, in a volume of priceless value today. Rather than functioning as mere music written for a liturgical occasion, Psalmi Davidis Poenitentiales is high-art music, and each psalm setting represents a vocal work of symphonic scope -- the setting of Psalm 50, Domine, exaudi orationem meam, runs nearly 30 minutes alone. Such long-haul expansiveness can prove exhausting to singers.
Despite the fame and import of these psalm settings, they are not performed or recorded with frequency, as they require an expert choir with considerable stamina. On Harmonia Mundi's Roland de Lassus: Psalmi Davidis Poenitentiales, Philippe Herreweghe is the expert in charge of Collegium Vocale, Gent, which demonstrates ample stamina in the course of the two discs of this set. Herreweghe has taken some heat here and there from critics for being too "French" in some of his interpretations, but he seems completely at home in these Flemish compositions for the German court. The singing is superbly phrased and paced, and the vowels a little more rounded than in the most prominent competing version by the Anglican Henry's Eight, reissued on Hyperion's "dyad" series at almost the same time as this Harmonia Mundi release. There is no clear winner among the two; Herreweghe's recording is more reverberant and the singers employ more vibrato than in Henry's Eight, whose version is correspondingly dryer and more restrained. Both do a full measure of justice to Lassus' music, which is glorious, but not to all tastes by virtue of its great length, orientation toward verticality of harmonics and sparing application of polyphony. Annotator Ignace Bossuyt mentions that "in every vocal genre of his time, (Lassus) was like a fish in water," but the impression one gets from his Psalmi Davidis Poenitentiales is of their independence of mind; whereas Palestrina worked toward absolute perfection of contrapuntal textures, Lassus' settings are oriented in a more purely emotional manner of expression.
Any recording of Psalmi Davidis Poenitentiales should be experienced a psalm or two at a time, otherwise the similarity of texture over such long spans ultimately becomes as though featureless. Nonetheless, Lassus' work is a Renaissance era milestone, and Herreweghe and Collegium Vocale, Gent's Roland de Lassus: Psalmi Davidis Poenitentiales is a fully adequate and even somewhat stylish rendering, on par with, if not better than, any recorded version issued heretofore.