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Guillaume de MACHAUT (c.1300-1377)
Lay de la fonteinne, [27:27]
Lay de consolation [21:24]
Rogers Covey-Crump (tenor)
The Medieval Ensemble of London/Peter Davies, Timothy Davies
rec. January, 1982, London, United Kingdom. DDD
L'OISEAU-LYRE 478 0026 [48:51] 


Experience Classicsonline

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 'sound-picture': 

            … les pechés
            Qui sont en mi,
            Vieil et endormi
            S'en fremi,
            Car emmi
            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 art. 

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. 

Mark Sealey



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