Guillaume de MACHAUT (c.1300-1377)
Sacred and Secular Music
Messe de Notre Dame [56:45]
Le Vray remède d'amour [68:25]
Le Jugement du Roi de Navarre [65:25]
Ensemble Gilles Binchois/Dominique Vellard
rec. September, 1990, Collégiale Saint-Martin de Champeaux, Seine et Marne, France (Messe); October, 1988, Église Saint-Martin de la Motte Ternant, Côte d'Or, France (Le Vray); October, 1994, Église de Grancey le Château, Côte d'Or, France (Le Jugement)
with CD-ROM (data) of texts and translations
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94217 [3 CDs: 56:45 + 68:25 + 65:25]

The recordings of music by Machaut on these three CDs sung with great sensitivity by the Ensemble Gilles Binchois were made a few years either side of 1990. There are many recordings of the Messe de Notre Dame available. Amongst the best are those by the Hilliard Ensemble on Hyperion CDA 66358 and, at budget price, the Oxford Camerata on Naxos 8.553833. But both the Vray remède d'amour and Jugement du Roi de Navarre, which originally appeared on Cantus set from whom this release is licensed, were unavailable for many years. Their re-release on Brilliant is to be celebrated. Especially since the price for all three audio CDs and a CD-ROM with simple PDFs of full texts and translations is lower than that of one regular CD by itself.

The Mass is one of the first surviving and identifiable works by a single composer; this alone would make it of immense value and interest. It's also an amazingly evocative, delicate and beautiful work, which benefits from an idiomatic approach and one equally light of touch. It was written in an age - the calamitous fourteenth century - when belief and devotion may have been the only certainties; so to have emphasised them with strenuous vocal textures and driving melodic lines would have been, perhaps, implicitly to undermine the strength of belief and devotion, which had to be taken for granted.

So it is that Dominique Vellard and the singers of the Ensemble Gilles Binchois make serenity, sweetness almost - and lyricism - amongst the abiding characteristics of which you are aware as you listen to their interpretation. 'Interpretation' because Vellard conceives of the Mass as the Ordinary of a polyphonic Mass incorporated into the development of a Gregorian Mass, a small group of singers privately singing in plainchant. Given the fact that the Messe de Notre Dame is also one of the longest extant works from the Middle Ages, there is real potential for a lack of cohesion in such an approach. Not at all here. This is a remarkably unified, and hence profoundly satisfying, account. It holds its own with all other available recordings.

But, as said, it's probably for the two CDs of Machaut's secular music that most will want to buy this Brilliant set. Machaut was also one of the best and most widely known poets of his age. It ought to come as small surprise, then, that Vellard and his team chose to perform some of the works here as spoken, not sung. Le Vray remède d'amour is a remarkable and remarkably successful sequence which presents a 'story' of love, desire, loss and fulfilment. We have no means of knowing how - or even whether - these poems of Machaut's were ever 'performed' in this way in his lifetime. But it seems likely that he would have approved. Even more probable that the mature, rich yet charged sound-world which they create is completely faithful to the intent and import of the poet's work. The choice of instruments (harp, fiddle, recorder) cannot necessarily be substantiated musicologically; but it's historically feasible, and sounds magnificent.

There is pathos, weakness, elation and longing. But they are overlaid with an asceticism that only adds to their impact. This, too, seems to work as much because Vellard and his team truly understand Machaut's art. The sensible and comfortable way in which the varied sentiments have been sequenced is evidence of this. Impact is never sacrificed for variety. Yet the changes in tempo and intensity enhance our appreciation of Machaut's amazing articulacy and force as a writer of both music and text.

Jean-Paul Racodon is an excellent speaker/actor with just the right amount of vivacity, tenderness and insight into Machaut's sentiments, plaudits, regrets and exhortations. His delivery is not that of a mere reciter. He declaims. There's a smokiness to his voice, yet a trenchancy. And an immediacy to his diction: he's living the text in a way that's wholly consonant with the conception of this set. There are also poems which he interprets with the greatest of tension and non-rhetorical verbal drama; yet with great finesse: Mon cuer, ma suer [CD.2 tr.20] and Et quant Nature [CD.3 tr.7], for example. Very persuasive and characterful: be prepared for really rousing delivery.

Le Jugement du Roi de Navarre is a strange collection. It's divided into two: the horrors of the Hundred Years War and Black Death, then an account of the King of Navarre's ruminations on the relative pain experienced by a lady who loses her lover, as opposed to that of a knight betrayed by his lady. Again, a combination of musical and purely spoken words is used. Vellard advances good reasons here too for the use of accompanying instruments. They sound well, are properly integrated into the spirit of the music and make the experience - again - a satisfying and stimulating one.

These are all expert performances. They are full of atmosphere, intelligence, persuasive yet appropriate emotional charge and expression. Technically unselfconscious and gently brilliant, this collection should be acquired by lovers of early music in general and anyone committed to Machaut's œuvre.

Mark Sealey

Excellent recordings of widely different works by poet and composer Machaut, previously unavailable; the three-CD set should be snapped up unhesitatingly for the beauty of the music, speech and performance … and the price.