Guillaume de Machaut is the greatest composer
and indeed poet of the 14th Century, if not, then
on a par with Chaucer and Petrarch.
Although he was in holy orders most of his
music, with the exception of the famous Mass, is secular. He
took pains to have produced during his lifetime, in fact before
1350, a huge manuscript of his work, which he supervised. This
he called ‘Remède de Fortune’. To quote Gilbert Reaney
in his book on Machaut (Oxford Studies 1971) "It is a rambling
love story, in which the poet manages to give examples of the
principal types of lyric song he composed, Lay, Ballade, Rondeau,
Virelai and the less common Chanson Royal and Complainte".
The story follows the pattern of praise of his lady who always
manages to stay at a distance and is desirable simply because
she will never be attainable. She is the personification of
Love, the ‘Douce Dame jolie’ but also the source of all of the
This CD covers three musical forms brought
to fruition with Machaut: the Virelai the Ballade and the Rondeau.
There are also eight motets. These are not the sacred works
that you might associate with the 16th Century masters
but polytextual secular pieces sometimes bilingual and in three
parts. If you follow carefully you can discern the separate
texts and how they bounce off each other, as in ‘ Beaucoup plus
belle/ Beauté parée/Je ne suis point’.
The Ferrara ensemble has differing and imaginative
ways of performing these works, which I will briefly mention:
Voices unaccompanied as in the motet 'Quant en moy/Amour et
biaute/Amare' (track 1); Harp solo as in the ballade ‘S’amours
ne fait par sa grace’ on track 3 (incidentally played far too
slowly to be suitable for the instrument). Voice and vielle
as in ‘Une vipère’ (track 6) or two voices and vielle
as in the motet ‘De Bon espoir/ Puis que la douce/ Speravi’.
Voices and harp as in the ballade ‘De petit po’, or even solo
vielle as in the virelai ‘He dame de valour’ etc. Most deliciously
of all in the teasing ballade ‘Il m’est avis qu’il dons de nature’
by soprano the delightful and subtle voice of Kathleen Dineen
with guitar - an instrument called the ‘dolce melos’ and vielle.
There are several works on this CD, which I
prefer in other performances. For example the motet ‘Trop plus
est belle/ Biaute paree’ in the recording made by the Clerks
Group in 1999 (on Signum CD 011) with its unforced relaxed all-male
performance. The delicious Rondeau ‘Rose lis, printemps de nature’
comes off more musically in the version made in 1994 by Project
Ars Nova (NA 068CD) when all three voices are texted (as opposed
to only one voice here whilst the other voices vocalise), and
the rhythm is treated with a gentle rubato which brings out
a give and take warranted in the sweet text. Then there’s another
Rondeau ‘Puisque en oubli’ sung here rather lugubriously by
two men with vielle but which works better, I feel, in the hands
of the delightful and idiomatic Brigitte Lesne on Harmonic Records
(CD 8825). This is accompanied by vielles and recorded in 1988.
The ballade ‘Je puis trop bien’ is a complex piece, which needs
clarity and works well in the hands of the Orlando Consort (Archiv
457 618-2) - an unaccompanied version as opposed to one here
for two voices and vielle. Then Gothic Voices in their 1983
disc of Machaut ‘The Mirror of Narcissus’ do everything wonderfully
with a lively vitality which exemplifies them at their best
as in the ballade ‘Biaute qui toutes autre pere’ in which they
perform the rich three voice version; whereas here we have the
less arresting two voice version.
Still I did not come to bury Caesar as it were
but to praise him. None of these performances are poor, some
are marvellous and the disc as a whole is a real pleasure with
several items I have not encountered before. The Ferrara Ensemble
and Crawford Young are far from strangers to this repertoire.
They have recorded at least two other CDs on Arcana of 14th
Century French Music. These include ‘Fleurs de vertus’ (Arcana
040) where their liberal use of instruments and improvisation
is not a factor with this present Machaut disc. I should add
that some experts, and one must say that they tend to be British,
have promulgated a very cogent theory that to mix instruments
and voices in this repertoire is not correct. As I have said,
‘Gothic Voices' and the Orlando Consort sing without them.
The presentation of this disc is beautiful.
There is no jewel box but instead a folded cardboard package
with the 50-page booklet on the inside, the CD in the middle,
a picture of the performers and a contents list on the back.
Across the whole of the inside there is a manuscript illustration
from Machaut’s ‘Remède de Fortune’. The whole thing is
an absolute delight to handle. The booklet is a bit of an art
to manage. The helpful accompanying essay by Jacques Boogaart
is translated from French into English, Italian and German.
It is useful to follow the excellent description of the pieces
on pages 14-16. The original texts are given from page 24 and
its good to follow those, especially in Machaut, where there
is much play on words and syllables. The English translation
begins on page 41 and all in quite small print. How rare and
how wonderful it is find explanation and texts all together
as happens with Gothic Voices CDs for Hyperion.
Although not my favourite Machaut disc this
is a good and well performed disc which is highly professional
in all areas and one to which I shall regularly return.