The motets of Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377) are complicated works. Even casual listeners will notice that each of the three lines of music has its own text -- one rapid and wordy, one moderate in speed, and one just a few words long. Musically they contain structural intricacies to which scholars devote pleasant lifetimes of research in old French libraries. Yet the interpretation of even music as arcane as this depends on the spirit of the age. Rationalists of earlier decades performed Machaut with rather harsh exactitude, seeking to clarify the subtle repetition schemes of Machaut's motets and polyphonic songs. But the Hilliard Ensemble, of the Self generation, focuses on Machaut as a creative figure with, to quote the liner notes, "a morbidly sensitive inner life." The notes allude to the possible religious symbolism of Machaut's convoluted language of courtly love, but what we get in practice are gorgeous, emotive readings that make these works sound a bit like Gesualdo madrigals. Of course, nobody can coax the impact out of a dissonance like the Hilliard Ensemble. Countertenors David James and David Gould shape Machaut's almost Faulknerian top-voice syntax into affecting emotional statements, and even listeners new to medieval music will become ensnared in the poet's quest for the slightest glance of regard from his unattainable Lady. One complaint: since this music draws interest from the puzzling relationships among a piece's various texts, the booklet should have been designed so that the listener could follow those texts simultaneously. Still, it's been a while since a major disc of Machaut motets was released (this disc contains 18 pieces, a few of them sacred), and if the Hilliard Ensemble doesn't close the book on this music, they nevertheless interpret it beautifully for our times.
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AllMusic Review by James Manheim
Qui es promesses de Fortune/Ha, Fortune! trop suis mis loing/Et non est qui adjuvet, motet for 3 voices