The Hilliard Ensemble: Guillaume de Machaut – Motets (ECM New Series 1823)

Guillaume de Machaut

The Hilliard Ensemble
David James counter-tenor
David Gould counter-ternor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
Steven Harrold tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Recorded November 2001 at Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

As one who spent a good part of his formative Renaissance listening digesting the music of Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300-1377) via non-Hilliard Ensemble recordings (most notably Ensemble P.A.N.’s exemplary Remède de fortune on New Albion), I have to admit to not taking much of a shine to these renditions at first. Yet after sitting with, and returning to, this recording a number of times over the years, I’ve been able to move beyond my preconceived notions and to appreciate the stunning light they shed. I venture to say that others may have the same reaction, but the rewards for immersing oneself in this ECM treatment are revelatory. The Hilliards have never been ones to take any project lightly, nor the choices within it, and the emotive care with which they sand and shape Machaut’s virtuosic settings is something to behold with wholehearted attention.

Like Gesualdo some two centuries later, Machaut was not without his preoccupations with mortality, love (both sacred and secular), and human beings’ penchant for suffering. It is perhaps for this reason that the Hilliards present their program in chronological order, as if to show us how Machaut grew behind and through its trajectory. And indeed we can almost hear that single comet’s tail drawn quietly from a tangle of cosmic lines. To be sure, these performances maintain the composer’s bold dissonances and challenging harmonies as they cascade over one another in waves of overwhelming polyphony (this, also, I think contributes to their hold on a listener), but in the Hilliards’ mouths their edges become rounded and fair, an effect only heightened by the resonance of Propstei St. Gerold, where the session was recorded.

The music is often anchored by dominant lines (e.g., Puis que la douce rousée) even as it spirals through a galaxy of atmospheres. Like a four-dimensional object it is impossible to fathom through the eyes, yet when we hear it through the shadows of the recorded medium it unscrambles our inner vocabulary like a Rubik’s cube until every side is uniform. Thus the movable nature of Machaut is so well suited to the Hilliards, for a likeminded meticulousness of vocal color and rhythmic staggering (O livoris feritas) truly distinguishes these singers from the rest. They also manage to enhance the sometimes-whimsical edge of the music’s piteous core, as in Helas! où sera pris confors. David James glows in the intimacies of Eins que ma dame d’onnour, Faus Samblant m’a deceü, as do the falsetto tenor lines in Fins cuers dous. Ultimately, however, one feels arbitrary in singling out certain moments over others, for Machaut’s knots are too well balanced to begin picking at individual threads.

I feel at pains to articulate what this music feels like, and equally so in trying extract some interpretive statement to which others, whether they’ve heard it or not, may relate. Like so much of what we encounter in our listening lives, these sounds come and go, lost even as they are experienced. That being said, I cannot help but believe that they leave discernible traces in the body, in the very synapses of the brain. If this recording has taught me anything about this art of reviewing in which I so humbly engage, it’s that immediate effect is not the criterion by which music should necessarily be judged. (In a world so bound by linear time, what currency does immediacy carry anymore?) Rather, I have increasingly tried to look at the specks of permanent change that Machaut, here and elsewhere, has lodged in me. Looking back on the experiences that led me to him in the first place, I know that fortune has indeed whispered into my ears with his texts and melodies from so many centuries ago.

If I may interrupt this stream of thought with a technical one, this was the first recording I ever heard with tenor Steven Harrold, who signed on with the Hilliard Ensemble in 1998. And while the colors of John Potter are certainly missed, Harrold delivers a fresh and slightly brighter tone (at the risk of undoing my earlier assertion, may I point your attention to his gorgeousness in the Veni creator spiritus). His presence is duly welcome in the context of Machaut’s motets, and along with countertenor David Gould enhances every motif he touches. If each motet is a series of numbers, then the Hilliards have provided us with legible solutions. Like a proof, each is filled with potential diversions and dead ends, but through this singular recording we are given a full map that we do well to follow with our eyes closed and our ears walking, open-armed.

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