For most people what is regarded as the first ‘through Mass’, which is to say the first Mass composed by a single person, is Guillaume de Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame. This is the usual introduction as well as finishing point, when it comes to an exploration of the music of the great fourteenth century French poet and composer. This is a real shame as Machaut was responsible for some of the finest music of the middle period of the fourteenth century.
Hyperion now issue this third volume in their continuing Machaut Edition. The others are Songs from Le Voir Dit CDA67727 and The Dart of Love CDA68008. What a thoughtful and accomplished composer he was; the present disc only serves to strengthen the assertion. It's the result of some excellent scholarship, with the sung texts taken from a new edition. The Complete Works of Guillaume de Machaut, edited by Yolanda Plumley and R Barton Palmer, is in preparation and will be published by the University of Michigan Press. The wonderful booklet notes for Hyperion are by Uri Smilansky, who is one of the music editors of the Edition. He adds insight into the music.
If the Mass is the only work by Machaut that you know these short songs might come as a bit of a surprise. Most of them take the form of solos or duets. Indeed it is only on the final track, 'Aucune Gent/Qui Plus Aimme/Fiat Voluntas Tua', that we get to hear the Orlando Consort's full complement of four voices. What is presented here is a collection of courtly love songs or virelais, a verse form often used in French poetry and music during the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries. These are deeply personal and intense pieces and the Orlando Consort bring them to life with great aplomb. Right from the very first track, Hé, Dame De Vaillance, a solo song in which Mark Dobell perfectly conveys the emotion of the text, you are aware of just how fine this recording is. In the previous recordings the counter-tenor, Matthew Venner, has been the stand-out voice. Whilst he is again on fine form, I find this recording a more balanced affair, with each voice being allowed to shine. Some of the songs, such as Esperance Qui M'asseüre, are solo songs that are supported by another voice in a kind of vocalised drone. The effect is mesmerising.
A finely sung and well recorded offering, this can only further Guillaume de Machaut’s position in the pantheon of the greats of medieval music and poetry. Here is a disc that makes me long for more. It's a wonderful expression of the courtly love song, one which should be investigated by all devotees of the early art of vocal music.