"Haunting", "ethereal", "refined" and even "strange" by one recent reviewer. That's how the unaccompanied music of Guillaume de Machaut (c.1300-1377) has been described; it's how many music lovers think of his work, including 'early' music specialists. But these terms do him and his music an injustice.
What was significant about this re-issue from 1999 is that it broke new ground. There had been few CDs (almost) ten years ago devoted entirely to Machaut's songs. Let alone all performed with voices alone, only the texted line sung with the actual words and the other lines vocalized although Christopher Page had established this as the likely orthodoxy over a dozen years earlier. But it needed nerve to take that orthodoxy at its word, so to speak, and perform such repertory this way for a whole program – nearly 80 minutes, 14 pieces. And it took the expertise of Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, who prepared the edition, and the skill and experience of the Orlando Consort (Robert Harre-Jones, alto; Angus Smith, tenor; Charles Daniels, tenor; Donald Grieg, baritone) to make it work.
These singers have a wonderful control. Their performance is taut and full of direction. It's a measured paying out with the steadiest of hands of each phrase of the thin melodic line. It then disappears gracefully under the surface; but with mature suspense. This gentle and subdued style of singing elicits enough authentic anticipation on our part that we are delighted and thrilled if the line reappears. Such an engagement as sponsored and directed by the Orlando Consort eventually imparts a profound familiarity with and understanding of the entire watery expanse. The confidence laid quietly on the lower voices in Tant doucement [tr.1] and the controlled hesitations in De Fortune [tr.3], for example, make it seem as though we are floating across such a vast ocean only vaguely aware of its shores and horizons. This is intuitive and accomplished singing of the highest order. There is not a hint of indulgence or spurious spectacle by the singers, who, for all their polish, still sing with an earthy and very humane tinge. Listen to the immediacy and regret of Mors sui [tr.4], for instance; the changes in dynamic and pace both re-inforce the lament and embody it… the attack on the first word of:
Mors sui se je ne vous voy,
Qui ma dolour
Acroist en moy
M'occirra, si com je croy,
And other points of emphasis and poingnancy, when what the poet dreads happens; and what he longs for does not. All well in the compass of the Orlandos.
Something else works both for and against the way this lovely music has to be performed and received by a listener fully aware of Machaut's immediate legacy, where dissonance and experiment predominated: these chansons are all from a time later in the composer's life when he was evidently concerned to simplify, to purify even. So on the one hand, the music should be more straightforward, the marriage of words and melody more exposed. But on the other it's such exposure that requires ultra fine tuning, infinitely meticulous attention to every nuance and detail. And the cooks broiling such an exquisite meal in front of the diners on this disc neither over salt nor over or under cook.
In his informative booklet – only available in downloadable PDF format and also containing the texts – Leech-Wilkinson sets out quite plainly which were Machaut's priorities: to reveal the poetry of music not by "setting" texts where the melody, rhythm and timbre underlined, underpinned or somehow "explained" the words; but by uniting sound. The words are syllables with sounds first; their meaning may perhaps be important, but only secondarily, if at all. Or in ways that we have now lost; and ways in which non-speakers of Machaut's French may never easily regain to appreciate. Pure vocalization. The real triumph of the Orlando Consort is so thoroughly to have absorbed the lines of this vocalization as wholes that the structure, the architecture, of the music (something which, as a poet, was important to Machaut no matter what) stay strong yet do not obtrude.
As a result, high amongst our pleasures at experiencing the chansons on this disc is that of forward movement to some purpose. Don't look for "New Age" chanting. Instead find gentle rhetoric, allusion, implicit reflections on beauty, self-awareness, prediction. Above all (and this is another strength of the Orlandos) communication. Their grasp of the supremacy of melody is also striking – listen to Je puis trop bien, [tr.8], for example.
The chansons are in two-, three- and four-parts with He! dame de valour and Liement me deport for one soloist. The arrangement and sequencing is well handled; intensity and relief, lightness and even touches of humor abound.
It's also particularly fortunate that the repertoire presented here contains mostly items not otherwise recorded: only De toutes flours, Ma fin est mon commencement and Tant doucement have more than one creditable recording, while Mors sui, Je ne cuit pas, Liement me deport, En amer a douce vie, Une vipere are anthologised but not otherwise widely known. It's a bonus to have as many still unknown items as we do here.
So this is a generous collection of highly desirable music which should appeal to a wider audience than probably it will. The key to ensuring this is actually to abandon "loaded" terms that make Machaut's actually very immediate and intimately approachable sound more exotic than it is. To try and listen to it on its own terms. Since this is something that the Orlando Consort sponsors particularly well, this is a welcome re-issue that can be warmly recommended.
Copyright © 2008, Mark Sealey