Gary Higginson
MusicWeb International
February 2021

If I’ve calculated correctly, this is the eighth release by the Orlando Consort in their on-going complete Machaut series, which means, I think, that we are now about half way. Since they started learning and recording Machaut in 2012, the singers have been astonishingly busy with all sorts of repertoire including music, for example, by Dufay, and of early 15th Century English sacred works (‘Beneath the Northern Star’) and Loyset Compère. Sometimes I feel that they sound a little tired and I have not always been as effusive in my comments about these recordings as other reviewers. Nevertheless, if you are collecting this series, you will have performances of Machaut which are as good as any of us might ever have expected to encounter.

Now that on-line learning is currently the main form of teaching, I would like to think that music students are logging onto our reviews not just for interest but also as a tool in the search for knowledge, so if I may I would like to mention the main forms utilised by Machaut as heard on this CD—and it’s worth saying that the Orlando Consort makes these forms crystal clear in their performances.

We are offered two motets, in which, as the word implies, the texts are there raison-d’être. So, for example, in the polytextual Tant doucement m’out attrait/Eins que ma dame/Ruina the three texts are marked as triplum, motetus and tenor. The first has three times as many words as the second, and the third, has just one word and is based on a brief line of chant. This is the sort of format you would expect to find in a sacred motet of the period and also of the 13th Century. In this performance all three are clearly audible but there is an argument that each should have been heard individually first and then combined, to enable greater understanding.

A Ballade, such as the early On ne porroit penser is, as usual, in three parts, and has the form AABB, the classic, so-called, fixed-form. The number of lines, however, may vary. Here, the voices vocalise untextless part. Several early music groups still hold to the view that these should be played instrumentally; however, there is a contrary opinion that an editor should consider adding text to the other parts as well. The effect would be quite different and, I think, fascinating.

There is just one Rondeau on this disc, the famous Ma fin est mon commencement. There are just two sections to a Rondeau but the music is repeated in the form ABAABA. In this work, both parts are employed in retrograde motion. The upper part, however, is performed in its entirety in reverse with itself, making excellent two-part counterpoint. The contratenor however, is only half as long as the other part, and is therefore is performed in reverse from the middle of the piece, making not only a third part to the other two but also a logical bass line with even a noticeable stress on the tonic/dominant at cadences.

There are three Virelai recorded on this disc. They are simple in style and often memorably monophonic, as here with J’aim sans penser laidure. They largely consist of a stanza followed by its refrain. The main work on the disc however is one of thirteen large-scale Lais, En demantant et lamentant but only one of two polyphonic examples. Machaut wrote this in his maturity and gives the CD its title, as it is a lament for King John II, known as John the Good, of France—the Lion of Nobility who was taken into captivity as a prisoner in London after the Battle of Poitiers in 1356 and died in 1364. Its twenty-four stanzas are in adulation of the king’s heroism and bravery but, as is typical of Machaut, alongside this, the role of fortune is widely examined. Each singer takes on the texted line in turn, which is a very pleasing plan, and the other two parts vocalise around it. The melody is practically different for each stanza so that the composition and indeed the copying of this astonishingly long work would have taken much sweat and probably many tears.

It also shouldn’t be underestimated what a marathon it must have been for the original performers and, you might add, the Orlando Consort in the unlikely event that they recorded it in one run. I find the individual voices of the consort to be tonally rather mixed, but together they prove themselves to be truly virtuosic, not only in intonation, but also in their delivery of the medieval French text, which is almost always expressive and clear. The solo Virelais, especially Dames, se vous m’estes lontienne, come off especially well, Matthew Venner’s pacing and poise are particularly welcome.

Many of these pieces come from Machaut’s ‘Prologue’ which is an autobiography but one in which you can’t fully believe. It opens the manuscript which the composer had compiled of his complete works. The edition being used on this disc and on the previous ones is new and due out later in the year. It is by Anne Stone and Jacques Boogaart, who also have put together Hyperion’s excellent and quite detailed booklet essay.

The theme of unobtainable love is present in almost every song. So, for example, in Je puis trop bien ma dame comparer, his lady, says Machaut, is like the stone statue 'fashioned by Pygmalion' whom he constantly beseeches but from whom he receives no response. But then, if you know anything at all about the poetry of this period and especially of Machaut, the canon of Rheims Cathedral, you will also know much about his love life or, at any rate, as much as he wants you to know.