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Guillaume de MACHAUT (c.1300-1377)
The Single Rose
The Orlando Consort
rec. 2018, All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, London
HYPERION CDA68277 [56.48]

The young man featured on the beautiful booklet cover is taken from a manuscript of ‘Le Roman de la Rose’ by Gulllaume de Loris (c.1240) a very popular and much-copied book and one continued until it was almost ten times its original length by Jean de Meun (d.c1305). Machaut, as a well-read, educated clerk, would have been very familiar with the book. Indeed, his own poetry, much of which he set to music, very often eulogises the Rose that “sparked such devotion in the narrator” (Tamsyn Mahoney-Steel’s excellent booklet notes), and although the rose may represent the unattainable lady whom the poet desires to pluck, it also represented the ‘rosa sine spina’ – the Virgin Mary, the most perfect of roses.

This disc falls into the pattern of the previous six discs such as ‘Fortune’s Child’, and ‘The Burning heart’ in which several pieces by Machaut in the differing forms of the period are linked under one concept. The Orlando Consort is in the process of recording Machaut’s complete works, 143 of them, using editions recent and forthcoming made under the overview of Yolanda Plumley and R. Barton Palmer by a series of several experts.

I have reviewed several of this series including ‘The Dart of Love’ (CDA 680008) and, last year, ‘The Gentle Physician’ (CDA 682060); re-reading some of my previous comments reminds me that I clearly had mixed feelings. Not surprisingly, the singers’ approach to these thirteen pieces is just as they have presented us with before; that is, that technically they are outstanding as an ensemble - witness for example their presentation of the polytextual motet Bone pastor Guillerme/Bone, pastor, qui pastores/Bone pastor. Diction is not only immaculate but also the way they use consonants and vowels to add drama and propulsion is exciting, as in a song like the four-part De toutes flours, which, appropriately, opens the disc.

However, I wrote about the performance by Mark Dobell of a monophonic Virelai that he did not “capture its charm” and that the performance of what was a popular dance form with the simple pattern of ABBAA, was “pedestrian and lacked rhythmic impetus”. Sadly, I feel the same way about Se ma dame m’a guerpi, which Matthew Venner takes on, and also of Dobell’s reading of Se d’amer me repentoie - although Agnus Smith’s version of a third virelai Quant je suis mis au retour has energy and character. Sometimes I would also love a little more expressivity with more dynamic contrasts and I find that Donald Greig, who is given the long tenor notes (the lower ones) in the three and four part pieces, sometimes has a rather obtrusive vibrato.

Am I being too picky as this is really challenging music?  In my defence, I will say that it is the poetic form of the Virelai, unlike say the Rondeau or Motet, which offers a soloist a chance to exert some individuality and character with its simpler melodies and animated syncopations and should be seized upon with a stronger sense of assurance.

Its worth remembering that Machaut is also a major poet who certainly influenced Chaucer and these poems and this unique music emerge largely from Machaut’s ‘La Remède de Fortune’, his long, rambling, autobiographic poem, and  his ‘Voir dit’ (written in the 1340’s), which both concern, amongst other things, his chaste and unrequited love for a young woman Péronne d’Armentières and his lack of ‘good fortune’. Its importance is that the various poems are couched in the fixed forms common to the period - that is, the ‘Virelai’ as mentioned above, the ‘Lay’ the ‘Ballade’ of which forty-two have come down to us, and the ‘Rondeau’ of which we have twenty-one. On each of their CDs the Orlando Consort has given us a good mix of these forms, as you can see from the list below.

Amongst the pieces which I feel come off particularly well are the two-part virelai Si d’emer me repentoie and the opening Ballade De toutes flours which, in a way, inspired the concept of the album. There is also a rare and amazing polytextual ballade De triste cuer/Quant vrais amans/ Certes/ Je di which the Orlando’s manage with great skill. Indeed, the motets come off exceptionally well, ending the CD with the angry and aggressive Fons totius Superbie/Oliveris feritas/Fera pessima. If Gilbert Reaney is correct (Machaut OUP 1971), this and the other motet can be dated c.1350 when Rheims was being battered by the English army, but Bone pastor Gullerme/Bone pastor, qui pastores/ Bone pastor is his earliest motet from 1324, as Mahoney-Steel also tells us, and was composed for Guillaume de Trie, Archbishop of Rheims, where Machaut lived for much of his life.

Machaut is certainly a Janus-figure, leading us out of the Middle Ages and there is no doubt that the harmonies often seem odd, especially in the more experimental ballades, and his rhythms unutterable complex. These are not necessarily my favourite Machaut performances but if you are new to Machaut and indeed to this series, of which this the seventh in the Orlando Consort’s recordings, I strongly suggest that this disc, with its variety of forms and tempi, may be a good place to commence your journey.

Gary Higginson

De toutes flours (Ballade 31) [5.44]
Se ma dame m’a guerpi (Virelai 6) [4.11]
Bone pastor Guillerme/Bone pastor, qui pastores/Bone pastor (Motet 18) [2.54]
Merci vous pri (Rondeau 3) [5.07]
Se d’amer me repentoie (Virelai 20) [4.25]
Je sui aussi com cils (Ballade 20) [5.55]
Se je souspir parfonderment – (Virelai 30) [4.07]
Certes, mon oueil (Rondeau 15) [4.45]
Quant je sui mis au retour (Virelai 13) [1.36]
De tout sui si confortee (Virelai 32) [5.26]
Qui es promesses de Fortune/Ha! Fortune, trop sui mis loing/Et non est qui adjuvat (Motet 8) [2.10]
Loyauté vueil tous jours (Virelai 2) [2.35]
De triste cuer/Quant vrais amans/Certes, je di (Ballade 29) [4.45]
Fons totius Superbie/O Livoris feritas/Fera pessima (Motet 9) [3.02

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