It's not always appreciated by non-specialists that Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377) was a poet as well as a composer. Indeed, in the middle ages his poetry was more widely known than his music. Much of his work took the form of the narrative dit; we would say "poem". This highly desirable two-CD set contains the Remède De Fortune, a lengthy speculation on the extent to which Fortune can be circumvented in human lives; is our fate inevitable, or can we counter its whims – in other words, is there a "remedy"? Lovers of medieval song in general, and Machaut in particular, should not hesitate to buy this expertly-conceived, performed and presented set.
A variety of poetic and musical forms (lai, complainte, chant royal, ballade, rondeau and virelai) is employed by Machaut here. He weaves his philosophical treatise into a love story. A young poet-musician has written a lai for the lady he loves. On performing it, he is asked by her who wrote it. Unable either to confess or to lie, he runs away and meets Espérance (Hope) in a dream-like enclosed garden. She exhorts the poet not to blame Fortune for his predicament but to have the courage (and perhaps presence of mind) to trust that a positive outcome is not only possible, but within his control. She teaches him a ballade, which he eventually sings to his lady. This convinces her of his love and probity. Although suspicious of the ring also given him by Espérance, the lady unites herself with the poet and they are apparently happy.
The bulk of the singing falls to Marc Mauillon; of the playing to Pierre Hamon. Hamon is also the director and conceived the project. Vivabiancaluna Biffi, Angélique Mauillon, Emmanuel Vistorky and Serge Goubioud support vocally and instrumentally. The playing and singing are consistently solid, convincing, full of expression and highly communicative without ever straying into the histrionic or "folksy". The group has achieved a remarkable atmosphere of intimacy and insistence. Machaut's work is very personal: he is speaking to us, analyzing the options at our side, and drawing conclusions fully aware of the impact they will have on his immediate listeners. It is with this directness, rather than a rhetorical or lofty delivery, that Hamon et al approach the work. On the other hand there is not a split second of dryness, detachment or routine. The communication is almost as though we were on the edge of our wooden benches there in the hall with Machaut, leaning forward to respond emotionally to his conclusions. Trusting them (this sense of command, authority without priggishness or haughtiness is another feature of this performance) and seeing why we can trust them is also a likely response.
For example, the performers' use of dynamics is spectacular (without being excessive): listen to the crescendo about fourteen minutes into Qui n'aroit autre deport [CD.1 tr.1]. It has every reason to arise (and again, five minutes later) – much as do the thundering timps in the "Dies irae" of the Verdi requiem, for example. Not effect, but fear. At the same time, the singers and musicians are capable of great sweetness and delicacy. They are clearly completely involved in the world they inhabit here for this music; but sufficiently well aware of the idiom's sense of insecurity not to take themselves too seriously.
The fourteenth century was a calamitous time: plague (including the "Black Death") and sickness, natural disasters, political, social, religious upheaval and instability – not to mention constant war – all made life exceedingly difficult. It was hard to imagine that Europeans were not being punished for massive transgressions. It is also surprising that Espérance advises the young poet to take as much responsibility as she does: personal control in this way is a relatively modern idea. But the great achievement of these musicians is to stand perfectly balanced between the colorful and the confident.
More in keeping with the mind, and artistic sensibility, of the fourteenth century is the way in which "parts" and "characters" are assigned to performers: that one performer plays more than one part, so to speak, was obviously of no concern to those in Machaut's time. Hamon has planned as authentic and consistent an arrangement as possible; and it works very well. The essence of Le Remède has been preserved – or (re)constructed most convincingly. Care has also been taken in situating the musical material, which serves both as illustrative and supportive to the text and as symbolic additions. Again, this has worked very well: Hamon's production neither tries to impose a symphonic or monolithic stamp on it; nor fragments it by presenting a mere sequence of disjointed "numbers". When flurries of "activity" (actually underpinned by emotion) occur – as towards the end of Tels rit au main qui au soir pleure [CD.1 tr.2], for example – they impress but don't interrupt.
The presentation of this set is nice too: a double "digipak" with a glossy booklet containing minimal background, the texts in medieval and modern French and English. The acoustic is highly appropriate: the recording was made in Chapelle Jesus enfant, Paris. Not distant, nor overly warm. No other recording of Le Remède De Fortune is available. Even if this were not the case, it would be hard to recommend this one too highly.
Copyright © 2010, Mark Sealey.