MACHAUT Sovereign Beauty
I’ve hardly been stinting in my praise of the previous instalments of this series, but this is finer still. The lovely three-part virelai Tres bonne et belle teems with incident, the interplay of the voices a constant delight. More surprising are the melodic coups de théâtre of the two-voice ballades Dame ne regardés pas and De desconfort, the latter reminiscent of Binchois (and incidentally, wouldn’t an Orlandos disc devoted to that other great poet-composer be welcome!). The centrepieces are the fastidiously crafted ballade Se quanque Amours (reminiscent of Solage) and the two-voice Lay de consolation, a wonderfully judged postscript. Throw in a couple of motets and a few monophonic virelais (a genre which The Orlandos have down to a tee), and you have Machaut at his most engaging and varied; but this really is one bullseye after another.
Then there are the performances, aided by a sound recording that sets each voice up distinctly while allowing textures (and text, come to think of it) to come across with wonderful clarity from the off. Rarely since the Gothic Voices has the vocalisation of the lower lines appeared so self-evidently the right approach, even (or especially?) in the dense four-voice Se quanque Amours, whose compactness and lyricism forces admiration (as does Mark Dobell on the cantus line). The primacy of text is urged with great eloquence in the solo virelais, Donald Greig (whose voice hasn’t been heard on its own so far in the series) turning in a very moving Comment qu’a moy lonteinne. (Interestingly, the Gothic Voices recorded the same three virelais but with high voices where The Orlandos go low, and vice versa.) Any blemishes? Well, the textures aren’t quite so clear in the two motets, and something very strange happens at the end of De bon espoir/Puisque la douce/Speravi. But the rest stands for The Orlandos at their very best, and if I hear a finer recording of 14th-century music this year I’ll be very surprised.