Unimaginative Readings Of Fascinating Repertoire

Review by: Robert Levine

machaut

Artistic Quality: 6

Sound Quality: 9

This recording features Marian settings from various composers ranging from the 14th to the 18th centuries. The two largest pieces are Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame and a Magnificat by Pierre de la Rue. The Vienna Vocal Consort–three men and two women–have individual sounds (one of which is a bit too individualistic and tends to jar), and so immediately you must adapt to the fact that the Machaut, in particular, is not being sung by the forces for which it was conceived: all men. Would that this were the CD’s only problem, by the way.

Beginning in the middle of the CD, the Magnificat by de la Rue is taken so slowly that I had to immediately compare it with the only other recording I own, on Naxos, featuring a group called Viva Voce, who come in at 3 minutes faster than the Vienna’s 15 minutes. Not only is Vienna turgid, but its solo soprano enters and remains a bit flat, and her ungainly tone interrupts the music elsewhere on the CD as well–sometimes it seems like a stylistic choice, a sort of “blue note”. Well, “blue” it is. (And Viva Voce, using a small chorus, is clearer and brighter than the five-voiced Viennese.)

You can’t really own enough recordings of Machaut’s Mass; as the earliest known setting of the Ordinary by a single composer (early 1360s), it seems as if all others spring from it. Furthermore, it always sounds different–you marvel at Marcel Perès’ controversial recording on Harmonia Mundi for its dark, growling, “unschooled” tone, but find more comfort, clarity, and “rightness” with the Hilliard Ensemble (Hyperion). The syncopation, the changing rhythms, the hockets endlessly fascinate and offer an inner excitement that propels the music forward, even if you remain stumped by its eventual direction until true familiarity sets in. Here we get a joyless, matter-of-fact performance–each word gets the same emphasis and inflection. It’s clean and proper and careful and dull and hardly sounds like the revolutionary work it is. The Gloria is a true bore.

A two-minute work by Czech composer Adam Michna has charm in the manner of Praetorius and is nicely performed; on the other hand I’m not sure how they managed to erase all the warmth from Dufay’s Ave maris stella. Palestrina’s Ave Maria is luxuriously performed; a 90-second Stabat Mater by Iribarren makes you wish to hear more of his music.

Interesting essays and translations of the texts are included; the CD’s cover omits any composer’s name other than Machaut’s. This release, while not quite a shambles, certainly belongs nowhere near your early music collection.



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Recording Details:

Album Title: Nostre Dame
Reference Recording: Hilliard Ensemble (Hyperion); Ensemble Gilles Binchois (Cantus)

Works by Jacobus Gallus, Guillaume de Machaut, Guillaume Dufay, Pierre de le Rue, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Juan Frances de Iribarren, Adam Michna, Tomas Luis de Victoria, & Josquin Desprez


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