The year in which this CD was first issued, (by Decca), 1983, is significant. It comes towards the end of the major contribution which The Medieval Ensemble of London made to the early music movement in the 1970's and early 80's: they disbanded in 1985. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, such first practitioners of the "revival" in the 1960's and 70's as the New York Pro Musica and Capella Antiqua of Munich had assumed that medieval song was accompanied by instruments. A generation into the serious research and more rigorous performance practice which also necessarily followed, specialists like Christopher Page and Gothic Voices cast substantial (and for the moment near decisive) doubt on that assumption. They quickly evolved a tradition of unaccompanied song with which such groups as The Medieval Ensemble of London were clearly at odds. Indeed, Peter Davies (brother of co-director Timothy) once commented that if there were to be no instruments, he could hardly perform the music!
So Ce Diabolic Chant is of particular musicological interest. It presents one view of how French secular music of the late fourteenth century may have sounded. The fact that such a view – that the part(s) notated without text implied instrumental accompaniment – is now eclipsed does not mean that this is not an immensely enjoyable and valuable collection of music. Indeed, The Medieval Ensemble of London produced nine such top flight recordings for Decca/L'Oiseau-Lyre at that time. Every one is a gem; it's good to have them available again.
Located at that time in the evolution of western song when the simpler style of the Ars Nova and Machaut (outstanding recordings of whose music were also produced by The Medieval Ensemble of London then) gave way to a more intricate and refined style, the Ars Subtilior, the ballades, rondeaux and virelais are found only in a small number of extant manuscripts. They were obviously intended for a highly cultured audience which must have been appreciative of nuance, subtlety and refinement. In some ways it was an inward-looking corpus: Si con cy gist mon cuer en grief martire, [tr.12], for instance, is actually about how to perform that very ballade. And Guido's Or voit tout en aventure, [tr.8] expresses the sentiment that this new form (of music) is quite contrary to the practices of good art, and is not a good thing (!):
Que s'est trestout en contraire
De bon art…
Certes, ce n'est pas bien fayt
Courtly love and sufferings of the heart are constant themes too. To be effective, the performances must be intense, fevered, almost. The judgement to be made is chiefly how evident should be the performers' awareness of the reflexive nature of the music. As perhaps it is in the case of playing music from the Second Viennese School. And then to make it more than a document; to arrive at a living recreation.
The Medieval Ensemble of London have it just right. They sing (and play) from sufficiently far "inside" the music as to be convincing: listen to the forward movement of Le Sault perilleux a l'aventure prins [tr.13], for example; what we hear are the poet's concerns and fears. At the same time, the lightness of vocal touch (not every piece here has instrumental accompaniment, in fact) and perceptible fluidity in articulation convey a liveliness that can only emerge when one is familiar enough with the music to step outside it too.
Technically the music of the Ars Subtilior is often very demanding, complex and forward thinking. The Davies' forces are very much up to this, of course. Never a falter or wrong turning, although at times (in En Albion de fluns environee, [tr.15], for example) it's easy to see why instrumental accompaniment fell into disfavor as early music practice matured. The sheer brilliance of The Medieval Ensemble of London's members is nicely evident in every piece here, though never ostentatious. Quite a legacy.
The composers whose works specialists and non-specialists of early French song alike will surely enjoy on this hour's worth of music constitute a representative collection of the relatively short-lived Ars Subtilior movement. And a profitable way to approach this enjoyment is an acceptance that we shall probably not know for sure just how it sounded – and almost certainly sounded differently from performance to performance. And that it's the essence of highly charged yet restrained self-expression with a good dose of detachment that should be sought. The performances on this CD go a long way to exposing that essence. Unselfconsciously and with great professionalism.
There's a useful introductory essay and the texts in the original French and English; the acoustic is clean, clear if a little close. As a historical document – and more – Ce Diabolic Chant (which title could well include a mistranscription of "chaut", so the complaint is of the heat, not the music) makes a very worthwhile addition to your collection of music from this amazingly fertile, yet still poorly understood, period.
Copyright © 2009, Mark Sealey