Mark Sealey
MusicWeb International
January 2021

The four-person Orlando Consort (Matthew Venner (countertenor); Mark Dobell (tenor); Angus Smith (tenor); Donald Greig (baritone)) formed in 1988 by the Early Music Network of Great Britain, specialises in vocal music from the middle of the eleventh to the middle of the sixteenth century. The Lion of Nobility is the eighth in their series for Hyperion of Machaut’s (c1300-1377) music. And it’s a splendid hour’s worth.

A rough contemporary of Chaucer and Boccaccio, and writing poetry and music a couple of generations after Dante, Guillaume de Machaut was highly regarded in the France of his time. Fortunate enough to have a succession of patrons, he assembled a substantial body of texts and compositions in most of the genres of late mediaeval France: lyrical, humorous, motets, rondeaux, a mass, laments, lais, virelais and so on.

Towards the end of his life Machaut composed a substantial allegorical and fictional retrospective work. It consists of multiple dits (longer narrative poems) interspersed with ballades and lavish illuminations. What we now call Machaut’s ‘Prologue’ was intended to stand at the head of an eventual manuscript of his complete works. It examines how and why he first became a creative writer, artist and composer; and as such represents a remarkable testament to Machaut. Here the Orlando Consort sings a dozen of these works with vigour, focus and intensity. Yet with restraint—and even with the detachment needed to lend yet greater brightness and depth of colour to the picture which Machaut painted.

There is as much spontaneity and drive in the Orlando Consort’s singing as there is controlled precision. Listen to the articulation and expressiveness in the verses of Je puis trop bien ma dame comparer [tr 11], for instance—the lower voices support the upper ones as Machaut struggles to put Love in its place as he feels it (she) could kill him: Mais Amour en li conjoint / Un fier desdaign et le grant desire voit / Qui m’ocira.

But Machaut espouses reality just as readily as hope and celebration: the ‘lion of nobility’ was (probably) France’s King John II, whose forces were defeated at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356 in the in the Hundred Years’ War. En demantant et lamentant [tr.6], by far the longest and most complex work on this disc, examines this event. Machaut is at his finest here by facing up to the tragedy rather than offering any kind of faint hope. Machaut also suggests, at times promotes, counterbalances in how we experience love. The singers of the Orlando Consort ‘endorse’ such a vision of Machaut’s; as a result each feeling expressed in the text becomes more real in the music.

In fact, one of the things which makes this collection of Machaut’s works so remarkable is the way in which the singers embrace musical complexity. (It is now thought that the complex structure of En demantant actually required a kind of polyphony in the simultaneous execution of which Charles Ives might have been proud.) Intricacy, convolution, even, judiciously serve as mirrors to emotional and reactive ambivalence, doubt and (implied) striving for reconciliation. This is not easy to communicate. The Consort is expert at doing so.

And although it would be going too far to suggest that this embracing of the schematic, the structural and the inter-relatedness in their superb singing holds the CD together, the sheer variety of the works could merely dazzle because one fails to empathise with Machaut’s vision. The Orlando Consort sets such a superficial response aside by their deep understanding of what the composer really wants to convey of love and loss, hope and despair.

The acoustic of the St John the Baptist church in Loughton, Essex, is dry but offers just the right amount of ‘reflection’ to avoid spurious atmospherics and cushioning of the music. Yet it supports the singing and expert engineering of the Hyperion team. We are brought close to the music—face-to-face, almost—yet we are able to wander with it and experience its texts as Machaut intended … less a performance, certainly not a recital; rather a confident exploration of Machaut’s gently beautiful and restrained world.

The booklet is well up to the usual Hyperion standards. Its writers set the context of fourteenth century poetry and song, survey each work here and comment on the overall significance of Machaut’s achievement, and its variety. The full texts are reproduced in French or Latin with English translations; there is then a brief summary of the scope of the Orlando Consort’s work.

Collectors of this golden corner of mediaeval music will want this recording, no matter they may already have (m)any of the individual pieces already: the Orlando Consort’s freshness, enthusiasm and colourful precision make it a truly distinguished collection. It’s hard to think that anyone new to such repertoire will not be impressed by the clarity and force of these singers … a persuasive introduction to Machaut.