The Lion's Ear: A Tribute to Leo X
The enthusiasm of Leo X for music was often commented upon by contemporaries. ‘The Pope,’ wrote the Venetian ambassador in 1517, ‘is a very good-tempered and generous man, but above all else is an excellent musician.’ This new recording from the Basel-based ensemble La Morra aims to illustrate the variety of musical practices, both sacred and secular, at Leo’s court as well as presenting a handful of pieces that the Pope himself allegedly composed and performed. Much of this music will be unfamiliar; but the frequently shifting styles and forms (the majority of these works are less than three minutes in length), from the rhythmic bite of the opening Lilum bililirum to the plangent setting (conceivably Leo’s) of Spem in alium, sensitively arranged in a sequence which alternates French, Italian and Latin settings with instrumental compositions and solo songs, never fails to keep the listener’s attention alive.
So too do the occasional intrusions of hidden gems. Both Leo’s chapelmaster, Elzéar Genet (better known as Carpentras) and a member of his choir, Bernardo Pisano, composed settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, presumably for performance in the Sistine Chapel during the three final days of Holy Week. Tantalising short extracts from both are given here in a cappella performances, beginning with Pisano’s O vos omnes, with its striking invocatory opening, in a mellifluous and well-balanced account which successfully evokes an appropriately melancholic sound world, and then with Genet’s Jerusalem convertere, which is treated to a convincingly more robust approach. Pride of place must be given to the final track, a setting of the Salve regina by Josquin Desprez. Possibly the work heard by Leo at a post-prandial performance in 1520, it is given here in a strongly characterised reading remarkable for the suppleness of its phrasing and keen understanding of the work’s overall architecture.