In this enticing and entirely satisfying collection of substantial works by Machaut, the Orlando Consort continues its series, begun for Hyperion with Le Voir Dit (CDA67727), followed by The Dart of Love (CDA68008), and A Burning Heart (CDA68103). The penetration and purity of their singing convey great insight into the music of a composer whom they consider ‘close to the summit’ of the greatest composers of all time.
The four-voice, all-male group was founded in 1988 as part of the Early Music Network of Great Britain; they soon acquired a just reputation as one of Europe's expert groups concentrating on music from the half millennium after 1050.
This CD consists of two motets, three ballades, four works in virelai form, one lay and one rondeau. Several of these are familiar. But the sequence makes for a refreshing hour’s listening. The milieu is unmistakably one of courtly elegance. Yet the Orlando Consort blends the restraint, which this implies, with a directness and intimacy. Poetic and melodic lines are not so much imposed as ‘offered’, in expectation that the singers’ deep, yet unassuming, understanding of Machaut’s world—and his amazing achievement—will communicate the wonder, with which his contemporaries clearly regarded him in the fourteenth century. For all the richness of the Orlando Consort’s singers’ voices, one finds oneself listening to the music, not the performance.
Most of the works to be heard here date from the earlier part of Machaut’s life and work. The lay and motet were established forms; at the same time, the composer-poet was experimenting with the ways, in which the chanson could use those newer forms rondeau, ballade and virelai. Such experimentation actively embraced novelty, wordplay and homonyms; as well as showing a happy concern with the solid sounds of words, rhymes and rhythms.
On the one hand this close fitting of music to text makes the tasks of singers easy—because there are clear pointers to what Machaut was thinking; and even in part why. But on the other, it would be all to easy to jump from evident fancy to evident fancy and to let the poetry carry a greater load than the beauty of Machaut’s melodic lines should allow. Instead, the Orlando Consort sings with a superb blend of sophisticated delivery and sweetness, with a gentleness that results in a whole, not a collection of colliding tropes.
The acoustic of the St John the Baptist Parish Church in Loughton (Essex) is surprisingly dry and immediate. This means that the clarity and particularity of their diction is never lost to spurious ‘atmosphere’. There is very little reverberation. This consistently directs our attention to the singers’ lines and enunciation—both singly and in ensemble. Perhaps surprisingly, such uplifting works as Se quanque amours [track 5] truly benefit from the lack of a sense of surround … the singers are apparently intent only on projecting the intensity of the poet’s love, which is ‘carried within’ (toudis en my). Focus again.
The booklet—well up to Hyperion’s usual standards—contains descriptions of the songs in context and full texts in French and English. Those prospective buyers hitherto convinced by the other volumes in this series will have no hesitation in adding Sovereign Beauty to their collection. There are indeed other recordings of this repertoire. These too deserve consideration. But there is something satisfying and appealing about the way in which these four singers leave us with a sense of how important spontaneity is (listen to countertenor Matthew Venner’s spritely Dame, a qui [track 6], for example) alongside surety in Machaut’s long, unfolding lines (such as those in the very next work, De desconfort, [track 7], where the impact comes from our knowing how thoughtful the composer was. The Orlando Consort respects the fact that he wrote from the heart, and only secondarily in any particular ‘genre’.