This is a reissue of a recording made in 1983 by the short-lived
(1981-85) Medieval Ensemble of London. The usual repertoire of the
group was music of the century after Machaut, who lived from about
1300 to 1377. But this highly appealing disc is an exercise in
the intensity of Machaut. And it works.
Machaut's lais seem to have had a special
significance for the composer. They're monophonic, very lengthy
by the standards of the time, highly inventive and they conceal,
in their apparent sparseness, great pathos and sophistication.
Each of the two lais here is in twelve stanzas, which all differ,
one from the other, in length, metre, rhyme, timbre and style.
That palette of sound is primarily one of
focus, concentration. The clean and understated yet immensely
impactful communication of a small pool of ideas is what one
is struck by. This concentration is centred around the anguishes
of love. There is an uplifting, transcendent tone - in ways
similar to those of the Pearl Poet in England at the same time. No need to
shout, or to whisper. Yet the pain, potential exaltation and
measured affirmation cannot be mistaken - provided the music
is treated as much as a meticulously-crafted exposition as a
… les pechés
Qui sont en mi,
Vieil et endormi
Mon cuer sont fischiés
Exposition, explanation, Yes.
But neither self-indulgent, nor spuriously extraordinary or
eccentric. The words of suffering, of creed, of fulfilment and
of resignation are paramount. Their articulation must be clear,
forthright and considered yet unostentatious. Throughout. Otherwise
the lais become allusive and demonstrative, rather than reflective.
That way they have a narrative air too: its unfolding is as
though for the first time.
There was scholarly evidence
- not least from Page and Gothic Voices, in the early 1980s
- that Machaut may have intended these lais to be performed
with one clear voice to the text and another (lower) which vocalised.
The decision by Davies and The Medieval Ensemble of London
to perform them this way dramatically exposes Rogers Covey-Crump
- then in his late 30s. His style is anything but dramatic,
though. He achieves a near perfect blend between a gentle but
muscular declamation that could be to another person; and an
almost speculative exploration of the lines of the text, which
are often long in meaning and complex. At times other members
of the Ensemble reinforce his singing and add a minimum of complementary
texture and sonority. But it's to Covey-Crump's understanding
of Machaut's feelings and art that we are repeatedly and inevitably
drawn. And willingly - so expert and accomplished is his
Machaut's lais cover as many
as two octaves: Covey-Crump's register is both easily capable
of that and well suited to the task. There is no strain, no
forcing; yet no holding back. When you add to this the tenor's
excellent and sympathetic French diction, it's easy to see why
the communication which he achieves so consistently is so broad.
And it's that sense of singers
singing to listeners and passing down a well-lit a tunnel the
nuances, particularities and generalities intended by Machaut
the poet and the human being that makes this music so persuasive.
No show. No effects. No exoticism. All of this is achieved despite
the point in history at which this performance was made - a
quarter of a century ago, not long after the death of David
Munrow, and the experimentation of other sets of performers
with hugely different priorities. Plain, idiomatic, beautiful
and characterful singing of music that seems so simple because
its burden is so clear.
The recording is acoustically
very successful. The booklet is well-written, by David Fallows,
together with a stylish translation of the French text into
English by Nigel Wilkins. If you missed this the first time,
are looking for a cleansing yet graciously forceful example
of fourteenth century singing at its best with much more than
a historical interest, this CD, although containing less than
50 minutes of music, will not disappoint.