La Tempête, Simon-Pierre Bestion
Alpha Classics Alpha 261
Machaut: Messe de Notre-Dame, Alfonso X El Sabio: Cantigas de Santa Maria
+ Stravinsky: Messe, Ohana: Cantigas

I have to admit that my heart sank when I looked at the paperwork with this CD and read that the word Azahar is the Spanish word for orange blossom, that the programme was a mash-up of Machaut, Alfonso X el Sabio, Stravinsky and Maurice Ohana, and that the programme note was in the form of an interview in which director Simon–Pierre Bestion declared of Machaut’s Messe de Notre Dame, ‘You can take extraordinary liberties with this Mass – it’s so modern after all.’ Well no it’s not – it’s from the 14th century. His further assertion that his approach is ‘neo-classical rather than historical’ and that he likes ‘disorientating the listener’ further depressed me. Time to put on the CD, and in fact things are not as entirely demented as promised by the notes. The gritty, choral post-Pérès account of the Machaut Messe de Notre Dame  with some kind of unspecified growling bass instrument (possibly a ‘basson ancien’), and tutti passages supported by early brass and drums is mostly effective, if a little implausible. The same epic treatment of Alfonso’s Cantigas de Santa Maria  is equally effective and implausible, and it is ironic that the music treated with the most respect is the most recent, the Messe  by Igor Stravinsky and the rather iconoclastic settings of the Cantigas  by Maurice Ohana. Putting to one side these last two elements of the recording, which are probably the most successful aspects though of less interest to EMR readers, your reaction to the presentation of the early music here depends on what you are looking for from ‘authentic’ performers. I have to admit that a director whose self-declared approach is ‘neo-classical rather than historical’ is unlikely to satisfy my requirements, and the allure of epic, pumped-up Machaut, impressive as it occasionally may sound, really ought to be resisted as ‘fake news’. Stepping back from the concoction Bestion is offering here under the Azahar banner, we essentially have two CDs mashed together: a good performance of some relatively good Stravinsky and some generally less good Ohana, and a whole other CD of early music, generally well performed but on steroids and therefore historically implausible. If that’s your kind of thing, go for it, but don’t expect a dinner invitation from me any time soon…

D. James Ross