Boston Early Music Festival set the scene at First Church in Cambridge Friday for a fine performance by the Orlando Consort, a British vocal quartet, which specializes in medieval and early Renaissance music. The audience, which left few seats uncovered, showed remarkable enthusiasm for the group’s “Guillaume de Machaut (ca. 1300–1377): Portrait of a Genius.”
I say remarkably, for although the singing was exquisite and the program seemingly well-conceived, this listener left vaguely dissatisfied, as if the promise of the evening had not quite been fulfilled. Perhaps the performers, who have given us some splendid recordings, were tired from their tour; several times, in spoken remarks, they mentioned traveling from a concert in Montreal the previous day. Maybe the bitterly cold, dry air was affecting them, as became apparent from time to time in the singing. In any case, I didn’t feel that we heard a good argument for how Machaut, who really was a genius, lived up to that term.
Machaut was not only the leading French poet of the late middle ages but the first musician in the Western world to leave behind a sizable corpus of signed compositions, sacred as well as secular. Going well beyond the traditional varieties of French and Latin song which he inherited from his predecessors, Machaut invented new approaches to the motet, ballade, and rondeau, the three most important genres that were represented on the program. Machaut must have understood his own singularity, for he saw to it that his works were gathered together into carefully organized, precisely notated manuscripts.
The French master’s music, all vocal, is extraordinary not only in its melodic and rhythmic complexity but also in harmony that is far richer than that of his contemporaries. His music compels strangely, not merely because of its unfamiliarity but as a result of his constantly pushing against the conventions of his time. Like Monteverdi’s, Bach’s, or Schoenberg’s work, it retains its strangeness even after repeated hearings, thanks to its originality, and it resists categorization despite the composer’s own systematic groupings in his manuscripts.
Thus the two motets on the program, “Plange regni respublica” and “Se j’aim mon loial amy,” share the polytextuality traditional for this type of composition. But they otherwise seem entirely unlike one another, in sound and structure as well as language and subject matter. This came across Friday night, but only up to a point. Medieval motets are notoriously difficult to convey to modern audiences. No listener can possibly follow the two or three simultaneously sung texts. Yet it is not impossible for singers to project to an audience the regular recurrence of the so-called hocket passages in “Plange,” which articulate its four-fold isorhythmic structure. In this performance, however, the rapid alternations of short notes between the two hocketing upper voices sounded rather sleepy, and the piece’s arcane design remained obscure. (The hockets were more evident, and entertaining, in a short, anonymous “In seculum” performed as an encore.)
The other motet, “Se j’aim,” conveys a distinctive sound, thanks to its numerous sharpened notes (an example of Machaut’s inventive harmony). Yet little variety occurred over its two- or three-minute course, thanks in part to the repetitive nature of all three voice parts. Perhaps performers can do nothing about this; to some degree it is built-in. Yet I wonder whether a more imaginative approach is possible. I wonder, too, how one is to take a composition whose texts express a wife’s complaint about being beaten by her husband, with music written and sung by and (one must presume) for men. Medieval music uses a very different expressive language from that of more recent times; are the strange harmonies and repeated musical gestures of this motet a compassionate reflection of the wife’s complaint, or were they meant to be funny or even sarcastic, in a nasty way?
The remainder of the program comprised songs of various types. More approachable than the rather forbidding polytextual motets of the time, late-medieval French song consists of florid melodies for a soloist who may be accompanied by two or three additional parts. Among Machaut’s simplest compositions of this type are lais and virelais for a single voice, represented on the program by finely sung solos by alto Matthew Venner and tenors Mark Dobell and Angus Smith. Ballades and rondeaux for two, three, and four voices filled out the program, with Venner and Dobell alternating on the leading (texted) lines while the others, including baritone Donald Greig, vocalized wordlessly on the accompanying parts.
Until a few decades ago, the lower parts of medieval songs and motets were usually performed on instruments. One of the attractions of early-music concerts was what amounted to the performers’ orchestration of these compositions, using more or less fanciful recreations of instruments none of which actually survive intact from the period. The more austere purely vocal approach taken by the Orlandos was pioneered during the 1970s and 1980s by groups such as Gothic Voices. Naturally this places a greater onus on the singers, especially the one entrusted with the main or upper line. All four of the Orlando singers possesses the vocal dexterity and the stage presence necessary for bringing this off. Yet they perform impassively behind music stands, focusing on the notes, avoiding the more histrionic approach that Boston audiences first began to hear in the mid-1990s from Liber Unusualis. It is possible to go too far in that direction, yielding a type of drama or rhetoric foreign to Machaut’s courtly late-medieval ethos. But I missed in Friday night’s performance the outgoing vocal gesture and sonority that made the Orlandos’ early recordings of Notre Dame organum and other medieval repertories so exciting.
Orlando drew the songs on the first half entirely from Machaut’s Livre dou Voir Dit (translated as “Book of the True Tale” in the succinct program note by Machaut scholars Yolanda Plumley and Anne Stone). Here the songs appeared interspersed with spoken narration, successfully conveying the gist of Machaut’s book, one of several from the period that alternate between sung and spoken poetry. Within the prevailingly agreeable mood, nothing in the eight selections particularly stood out, unless it was a precisely sung chromatic passage near the end of “Se pour ce muir,” which closed this half of the program.
Whereas the first half presented relatively late works from the Voir Dit, Part 2 seemed organized only by the principle of variety. It included a relatively lively performance of “Ma fin est mon commencement,” the famous palindromic rondeau, which I have heard elsewhere taken like a dirge. This part of the program also had the one non-Machaut composition, the anonymous chace or canon “Se je chant,” but its whoops, hoots, and other imitations of hunting sounds lacked sufficient energy to elicit much of a response from the audience.
Scholars have worked out a rough chronological sequence of Machaut’s compositions, and it is possible to trace the development of his style in each of the major genres. Though it would be pedantic to insist on performers’ presenting the music in chronological order, or by type, we consider it strange indeed to hear a concert of Beethoven’s concertos and symphonies in which individual movements from different works, composed at various times in a subjectively determined sequence. We tolerate this bouquet arrangement with songs, however, even when these their composer place them in specific orders. I wonder whether the songs and motets on this program would make more of an impression if grouped closer to the composer’s intent. Would listeners hear more, would the changing style make more sense, would the poetry and music be more meaningful, if similar songs, or compositions written at roughly the same time, were grouped together?
A pre-concert talk with the artists rambled through such irrelevancies as favorite performing venues and food eaten while on tour. Presenters have every reason for giving members of the public an opportunity to get to know performers as people. But this can be embarrassing when the people in question are not, for whatever reason, prepared to offer substantive informed commentary on the music they are about to perform. Nor is it the best use of a singer’s voice to talk at length right before a performance. BEMF might consider following H & H and other presenters in offering more structured, more genuinely educational talks by experts, of whom there are any number in the area. From the intelligent questions about the music posed to the performers by several members of the audience, it would seem that some listeners, at least, would appreciate that.