Fortune’s Child is the fifth volume in the Orlando Consort’s ongoing survey of Guillaume de Machaut’s polyphonic songs for Hyperion. It takes its name from the opening couplet of the monophonic virelai ‘Puis que ma dolour agree’: 'Since my suffering pleases/The woman who is fortune’s child', affectingly rendered here by the Orlando’s countertenor Matthew Venner. As Tamsyn Mahoney-Steel’s comprehensive introductory essay tells us, Lady Fortune was a key character in the world of medieval literature and art. She speculates that topical texts such as Le Roman de Fauvel (often associated with Ars Nova and Machaut’s contemporary Philippe de Vitry) and ancient works such as Boethius’ sixth-century De consolatione philosophiae played a key role in Machaut’s conception of Fortune. The fourteen ballades, virelais, rondeaux and motets featured on this disc address the effects of Fortune upon the experience of spiritual, rather than physical love.
Four of the virelais here are for solo voice; in addition to ‘Puis que ma dolour agree’ Matthew Venner sings the briefer ‘Dame, je vueil endure’, a fine example of the intricacies and paradoxes underlying Machaut’s genius for structure. The words of this piece describe the compromise involved in spiritual love; the acceptance of emotional pain is set against the joy of serving the beloved. The music, on the other hand is built in such a way as to suggest that such compromise is all but impossible to maintain. In contrast, tenor Mark Dobell contributes the ecstatic ‘Dame, vostre dous viaire’, whose seraphic melismata convey the unadorned joy of such service. Even more impressive to this reviewer’s ears is the experienced tenor Angus Smith’s lovely account of ‘Dou mal qui m’a longuement’, a deceptively simple virelai which considers the physical pain involved in pure love. By considering these solo offerings, the listener gets a much greater insight into the parts that constitute the whole, as the constant wonder of the Orlando Consort lies in the complementarity of what are, on the face of it, very distinct, individual vocal personalities.
In the remaining ten items then, all of which involve various combinations of two or three voices, close concentration on the part of the listener for each item is rewarded by the realisation of almost infinite coloristic variety, notwithstanding the apparent austerity of Machaut’s style. Two of the ballades for two voices stand out: ‘Dous amis, oy mon complaint’ is a grim, darkly-coloured account of the somatic consequences of unrequited love, plaintively delivered by Dobell and baritone Donald Greig; even more moving is the softer-hued ‘Riches d’amour’, in which the emotional distance between lover and loved seems infinite, to the point that the rejected lover will gladly accept death if fortune so decrees. It would require a heart of stone indeed not to respond to the perfectly blended purity of Dobell and Venner’s voices here.
There are more upbeat items on this programme, however. The opening three-voice ballade ‘Gais et jolis’ celebrates the infinite joy the poet feels at the impending return of his beloved. More ambiguous is the fascinating closing item, ‘Honte, paour, doubtance’ which amounts to an etiquette guide for the courtly lady, essentially a medieval template for the English music-hall/folk song ‘Keep your hand on your ha’penny’, albeit with a text that’s primmer and shorn of innuendo.
It goes without saying that the performances of the Orlando Consort here easily maintain the high performance standards of the previous instalments. Their enunciation of the Old French texts is deeply impressive and only amplifies the effortless accuracy of their singing. Recording standards are in the best Hyperion tradition. Those who are collecting this excellent series need not hesitate. For those who aren’t and fancy dipping their toes in the waters of these fourteenth century polyphonic treasures I would argue that the present disc, varied in content as it is, makes an excellent starting point. Similarly though, I would caution the newcomer against listening to the whole thing at once. It does take time to assimilate Machaut’s (and the Orlando’s) idiom—in my humble opinion the subtle differences between each song better reveal themselves in groups of three or four at a time. Having said that, over the last three or four years I feel blessed to have become acquainted with these superb Hyperion recordings of Machaut—it has been well worth the effort.