Machaut: Messe de Nostre Dame

Graindelavoix, Björn Schmelzer
72:50
Glossa GCDP32110

Well, I suppose it was just a matter of time before Machaut’s Messe de Notre Dame  was given the Graindelavoix treatment. As chance would have it, I had just been re-acquainting myself with two of the leading performances on CD, by Marcel Pérès and his Ensemble Organum (HMG501590) and The Taverner Consort directed by Andrew Parrot (CDC 7479492), when the present recording arrived. Always guaranteed to stimulate thought, Björn Schmelzer’s readings of early choral music are never less than controversial, and this recording is no exception. In a densely philosophical programme note, he pays passing homage to Pérès, and indeed the whole approach is very reminiscent of Ensemble Organum’s 1996 account.

As in their model, encrustations of ornamentation and free glissandi mean that the music is only occasionally allowed to settle on the perfect fifths that make it so distinctive, but the Graindelavoix reading also feels free to add pedal bass octaves at key cadences, and the full choir sections almost threaten to degenerate into a mob anarchy. Due to a closer acoustic, the ‘solo’ episodes sound less chaotic, but still seem to me to exemplify a triumph of individualism over group thinking, surely precisely the sort of inappropriately modern mind-set Schmelzer’s note is at pains to condemn. Schmelzer’s reading of the mass is on a temporally epic scale, and in my opinion much of the rhythmical energy is dissipated as a result – the Kyrie for example is a full minute longer than Pérès already unhurried account, and more than five minutes longer than Parrot’s rhythmically tight version! When I reveal that my listening prior to hearing the Graindelavoix recording had led me to the conclusion that Pérès had ‘gone a bit far’ in elaborating upon Machaut’s polyphony, you will realize from my comments that Schmelzer goes much further, and that I am reluctantly less than convinced by this approach. I would have liked the programme note specifically to explain why Schmelzer believes that Machaut’s singers would have sung his music like this, or whether in light of the programme note this is even his main priority. The motets and chant which sketch in a liturgical context, although not as completely and consistently as Parrot’s 1984 account, are generally more plausible than the ordinary of the mass, and items like the opening account of Inviolata genetrix  and the later Beata viscera  are radical but intriguing. I wanted to like this recording much more than I did, but I feel it would be unfair to gloss over its ultimately very idiosyncratic and self-indulgent approach to this iconic music. Much of the account of the Mass is quite unpleasant to listen to, not because of the shock of Schmelzer’s iconoclastic approach but because the voices slide around randomly and aren’t always in tune when they settle; they rarely blend; and ultimately for me the recording seems to have priorities other than the pursuit of historical authenticity – indeed it seems at times to have the tiresomely adolescent aim of ‘seeing what it can get away with’. On a purely practical level, I find it very hard to believe that Machaut’s employers, who we know surrounded themselves with the ultimate in precise sophistication and refinement such as Machaut’s own Louange des Dames  and Livre de Voir Dit, would have tolerated for one moment this sort of musically permissive approach in their church music. If, like me, you are generally instinctively drawn to Graindelavoix’s performances, you should probably give this recording a try, but I can’t help feeling that it adds little to Pérès’ account, which is as near the knuckle as I personally would care to go. However, for a ‘purer’, and in my opinion much more honest and convincing account of Machaut’s polyphony and a substantial liturgical framework, I would thoroughly recommend Parrot’s clinically precise but barn-storming 1984 recording, one of his very finest performances on CD.

D. James Ross

1 Comments

  1. Curious, I have both the Pérès and Parrott CDs in my collection for the Machaut mass. I could add Dominique Vellard’s version. From the video attached to this post I see no further news from Pérès. People doing this kind of repertoire seem a bit obsessed with ornamentation and, like it is mention in the post, this music lives much from the consonances 5ths 8ths and so on.
    all best,

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