Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Machaut's Messe de Nostre Dame rethought by Graindelavoix

Machaut - Messe de Nostre Dame
Guillaume de Machaut Messe de Nostre Dame and mass propers; Graindelavoix, Bjorn Schmelzer; Glossa
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on May 17 2016
Star rating: 4.0

A refreshing and invigorating view of Machaut's masterpiece, in the tradition of Marcel Peres and Ensemble Organum

In his talk Reconstructing Historical Singing – Reality or Fantasy? (given as part of Kings Place's study day How to be HIP – Historically Informed Performance; Here and Now, Why and How) Richard Wistreich asked two questions, if we reconstructed baroque vocal technique would we like it, and is it worth? This same questions could be asked of medieval performance techniques? If we knew how medieval polyphony was sung, would we like the results? Most modern performers generally simply sidestep the issues.

This new disc of Guillaume de Machaut's Messe de Nostre Dame from Bjorn Schmelzer and Graindelavoix on Glossa makes us ask just such questions. Put the first track on and we are presented with a vibrant, highly energised sound world rather a long way from the poised perfection of, say, the Hilliard Ensemble. What is going on?

Bjorn Schmelzer & Graindelavoix - photo © Koen Bros, Marius Peterson
Bjorn Schmelzer & Graindelavoix - photo © Koen Bros, Marius Peterson
The disc is recorded by the group Graindelavoix, which their record company Glossa describes as 'much less an early music ensemble and much more an art collective experimenting between the fields of performance and creation, comprising singers and instrumentalists led by Björn Schmelzer. Taking its name from an essay by Roland Barthes (“le grain, c’est le corps dans la voix qui chante, dans la main qui écrit, dans le membre qui exécute...”), where Barthes was looking for what constitutes the gritty essence of a voice, Graindelavoix experiments with what one does with the “grain”, the physical and spiritual reflection of the voice. .... What is preoccupying Graindelavoix in early music is the bond between notation and what eludes it: the higher consciousness and savoir-faire that the performer brings to a piece (ornamentation, improvisation, gestures...). Schmelzer works with singers and instrumentalists who embrace diversity, heterogeneity, ornamentation and improvisation in their music-making. In many ways, an ethno-musicological approach to early music.'

This is in fact rather more helpful than Schmelzer's essay in the CD booklet. His text is highly learned but rather dense in its language. Phrases like 'Finally, we can return the "Messe de Nostre Dame" into its pre-modern(ist) or post-modern state, making its hybridigy emerge again through diagrammatic, operative performance'. A passing reference to Marcel Peres gives us a clue. Peres recorded Guillaume de Machaut's Messe de Nostre Dame with his Ensemble Organum in the 1990s. Famously Peres incorporated elements of Middle Eastern, Byzantine and Jewish chant performance, and used singers from Corsican polyphonic folk traditions.

Bjorn Schmelzer & Graindelavoix - photo © Koen Bros, Marius Peterson
Bjorn Schmelzer & Graindelavoix - photo © Koen Bros, Marius Peterson
Peres' recordings were highly influential but few groups since have explored the territory. We remained wedded to the note based perfection of Western classical performance. The singers here perform with what I might call a strong, throaty sound familiar from polyphonic traditions such as those in Corsica and Georgia, This reflects the academic conviction that the Western classical vocal sound, dependent on depressing the larynx, developed only after the early 19th century. Monks in the Middle Ages would have used a freer, less produced sound.

Schmelzer and his group also take Guillaume de Machaut's manuscript as a starting point rather than using it  as an absolute. They take the silences on certain subjects as an indicator of some sort of oral tradition. What the performances intend to do is to revitalise the modern tradition of performing Machaut and to look at the music in a new light. We don't know that performances sounded like this, and we don't know that they didn't.

A lot of careful research has gone into the disc, the accompanying plainchant propers for a Laydmass come from BM224, a missal from Rheims, and they are elaborated and embellished based on other plainchant sources.

Not everyone will like the performance, with the folk-singer-ish vocal quality, the bending of the notes, the rhythmic freedom, the sense of fluid improvisation and the the feeling of the 10 being co-creators of the music. But I found it invigorating, and a refreshing contrast to the purity and perfection of much of the Western Classical tradition. Guillaume de Machaut's Messe de Nostre Dame may not indeed have sounded like this, but the performance really makes us think.

GUILLAUME DE MACHAUT (c1300-1370) - Messe de Nostre Dame
01 Inviolata genitriz / Felix virgo / Ad te suspiramus gementes et flentes - Motet by Guillaume de Machaut
02 Introitus: Salve sancta parens - Anonymous (plainchant)
03 KYRIE, Messe de Nostre Dame - Guillaume de Machaut
04 GLORIA, Messe de Nostre Dame - Guillaume de Machaut
05 Graduale: Benedicta et venerabilis es virgo Maria - Anonymous (plainchant)
06 Alleluya: Post partum virgo - Anonymous (plainchant)
07 Prosa: Verbum bonum et suave - Anonymous (plainchant & version Codex Las Huelgas)
08 CREDO, Messe de Nostre Dame - Guillaume de Machaut
09 Plange, regni respublica / Tu qui gregem tuum ducis / Apprehende arma et scutum et exurge - Motet by Guillaume de Machaut
10 SANCTUS, Messe de Nostre Dame - Guillaume de Machaut
11 AGNUS DEI, Messe de Nostre Dame - Guillaume de Machaut
12 Communio: Beata viscera - Anonymous (plainchant) & Perotinus (conductus)
13 ITE MISSA EST, Messe de Nostre Dame - Guillaume de Machaut
Graindelavoix (Francois Testory, Paul de Troyer, Marius Peterson, Adrian Sirbu, David Hernandez, Tomas Maxe, Bart Meynckens, Arnout Malfliet, Jean-Christophe Brizard)
Recorded in St Augustine's Church, Antwerp 25-31 March 2015
GLOSSA GCD P32110 1CD [72.50]
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