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Guillaume de MACHAUT (c.1300-1377)
Mercy Ou Mort

Chansons et motets d’amour
Kathleen Dineen, Lima Morin, Eric Mantel, Stephen Grant, Karl Heinz Shackles, Randall Cook and Crawford Young
Ferrara Ensemble directed by Crawford Young
Recorded at the Church of St.Germanus Seewen (Soleure), March 1998
ARCANA A305
[76.10]

 

Experience Classicsonline

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 poets’ miseries.

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.

Gary Higginson



 



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