Guillaume de Machaut:

£12.00

Signum is delighted to announce the debut disc of the Gramophone Award winning Clerks’ Group on Signum Records.

This disc is a programme of 14th-century motets and mass movements represents two of the most important sources of French medieval music.

The Ivrea Codex now lives in the Chapter library of the cathedral of Ivrea, a small town in the foothills of the Italian Alps, south of the modern ski resort of Aosta (home to an important 15th-century music manuscript). This may seem an unexpected area in which to find major sources of medieval music, but in fact the position of these towns on one of the main routes across the Alps between France and Italy readily explains their importance in the Middle Ages. They lay on roads that linked centres of power, and accordingly they grew in importance themselves, sustaining cathedrals with musical traditions that provided a natural home for collections of sophisticated polyphony.

SKU: SIGCD011

The Clerks’ Group
directed by Edward Wickham

Release date:1st Mar 1999
Order code:SIGCD011
Barcode: 63521200112

Organists Review – February 2000

The Clerks’ Group extend their repertoire in these performances of motets by Guillaume de Machaut (c.1300-1377) together with items from the Ivrea Codex – which preserves 14th-century French vocal music. Pervious recordings by this small choir, one voice to a part AA (one male/one female/TT/Bar, have been made for ASV. One of a series of three devoted to Ockeghem (1410-1497) won the 1997 Gramophone magazine Early Music Award.

The Group now marks its recent association with SIGNUM RECORDS – a very enterprising young company – by presenting a further series of three CDs, this time of music from the 14th century, the first of which is under review. Nine motets by Machaut are interleaved three at a time with seven disparate items from the Ivrea Codex. Texts are given in full, carefully translated; and Daniel Leech-Wilkinson has provided succinct and intelligible notes.

Knowledge of Machaut’s treatment of texts is essential to follow: for example the simultaneous presentation of Christe qui lux et dies together with Veni creator spiritus in one of the Latin motets. Three of the nine motets are in Latin, the others in French. The Latin motets are in four voice parts, the others in three. The six solo voices of the Group are never all to be heard together on this recording. The most accessible motet at a first hearing is to be found in track 6 start with this and you will be entranced by its hauntingly expressive character.

Ivrea is a small town south of the modern ski-resort Aosta. The codex contains Ars Nova motets, liturgical Mass settings, and secular songs, presented anonymously for the most part. To let the recording play through results in some rather striking contrasts. A Sanctus is followed by a very irreligious item, where it is just as well that what ‘the woman’ would have of her ‘Robin’ is immediately followed by sterner matter.

The singing generally has a welcome freshness and vigour, with voices free of intrusive vibrato and of irritating mannerisms. Edward Wickham as Director perhaps overburdens himself as Baritone as well, and falls a little below pitch on occasion; but he certa9inly moves things on and instils some buoyancy. There is a certain lack of freedom in the hocketing; and I found the employment of a male and of a female alto disturbing; mo matter how well sung, the female upper voice can give the unwanted effect of a soloist accompanied by the other voices.

If, as the Psalmist had it millennia ago, ‘ a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday’, this recording may be regarded as a n attempt to reconstruct what was available to the Almighty from about 3.30 in the morning of the second millennium AD. Many significant and controversial decisions and compromises have to be made to get this early music off the page – musica ficta, rhythm, voice-production, tempo, pitch, pronunciation, and so on. The Almighty would surely recognise the value of this enterprise. Note the reduced price, and order with confidence.

Gramophone Magazine – October 1999

The Clerks’ Group is pared down here to its simplest line-up, with a single voice to a part. This makes sense in fourteenth-century repertories, and it gives The Clerks a freshness and directness that has been at times lacking in recent recordings. A new departure is the repertory explored, obviously earlier than anything the group has previously attempted, and no longer merely composer-based. Machaut gets top billing, but much of the programme is anonymous and derives from a single source, the Ivrea Codex (copied in the latter years of the century). This consists of settings of individual Mass movements, for the most part chordally conceived, declamatory and decidedly extrovert. In that sense it contrasts nicely with the introversion of Machaut’s three-voice songs, and shows off The Clerks at their best. The singers also indulge themselves with a memorable rendition of one of this repertory’s most famous pieces, Clap, clap! Sus Robin. It may no longer need saying, but I’ll say it anyway; don’t be put off by the anonymous tag.

One gets a clear enough impression from this recording of the lines of stylistic demarcation that Machaut draws in his work: the three-voice songs are audibly ‘experimental’ in their chromatic turns, while the four-voice Latin motets prize rhetorical effects of texture and large-scale design (although the manner in which successive voices are introduced in Tu qui gregem/Plange, regni and Felix virgo/Inviolata is equally strange, the latter’s soft tones contrasting sharply with Gothic Voices’ interpretation on Hyperion, 1/84). Those familiar with previous recordings of the songs (for example the two versions of Dame, je suis cilz/Fins cuers doulz, again with Gothic Voices, as above) will hear differences in the editions used (here, by Daniel Leech-Wilkinson); they may also hear that The Clerks’ declamation of French is not as clear as that in Latin-texted pieces (whether Machaut’s or the works from Ivrea), resulting in less strongly imaged performances of the most wilfully characterful music here. As an all-Machaut recital this would face formidable competition, but the Ivrea music leavens the programmes and fills a gap in the catalogue very elegantly.

Fabrice Fitch

Gramophone Early Music Quarterly – Summer 1999

..The Clerks’ Group is a highly sophisticated ensemble of young singers whose immaculately polished performances show Machaut’s extraordinary lyrical gift – even in the genre of the motet, so often thought of as abstract and unapproachable. Edward Wickham clearly views Machaut as a medieval romantic, drawing out the finely wrought lines and wallowing in the luscious sonorities of his music; and the effect is enhanced by a resonant acoustic, though the recorded sound is somewhat over-glossy. Each singer has a naturally light, straight-toned voice and can effortlessly flat over the vocal lines like ‘a feather on the breath of God’.

The highlights of this disc are three motets by Machaut based on love songs in performances which sound every bit as poetic and expressive as 18th-century Lieder; and the rapturous Marian motet Felix virgo / Inviolata genitrix, in which the group’s intimately veiled sound is especially apt. Alongside the Machaut works are a handful of anonymous motets from the Ivrea Codex, a major 14th-century source containing some fine compositions, if never quite matching Machaut’s genius. With the caveat that a few motets go a long way, this is a truly haunting collection. 

Kate Bolton

Classic CD – June 99

Taking a break from their splendid Ockeghem project for Gaudeamus, The Clerks’ Group travel back a further hundred years, presenting a programme of motets by Guillaume de Machaut. These are supplemented by pieces from the Ivrea Codex, which preserves music believed to have been written before 1360 and which constitutes the most important chronicle of ars nova.

Wickham has taken settings of the parts of Mass from the codex, together with one motet ("Clap Clap/Sus Robin") in the ars antiqua manner. Credited to that most prolific of sources, Anon, these pieces demonstrate a variety of styles within the ars nova school. As the exact date of the compositions is unknown, we can speculate that the variety illustrates the evolution of music at the time, but it is just as likely that it reflects the composers’ response to different text and performing contexts. Whatever, this is a nicely balanced programme, and the Clerks bring the same clarity, poise and spirit to this music as they do to their more accustomed repertoire.

Barry Witherden

Classic fM Magazine – May 1999

The 14th-Century French composer , poet and ecclesiastic, Guillaume de Machaut was prolific both in secular and sacred music. He was a representative of the ‘Ars nova’ (new musical art of France at the time), which advocated greater rhythmic variety and melodic flexibility. The Clerks’ Group under its director Edward Wickham, who also sings the baritone strand of the unaccompanied vocal texture, focuses on a manuscript known as the Ivrea Codex, in the first of a projected series of three recordings featuring particular medieval collections. The programme has been effectively devised to demonstrate stylistic contrasts between Machaut’s four voice motets on the one hand, and a sequence of mass movements, probably by various composers, on the other. Perhaps by way of light relief, an anonymous little piece from the Codex, with a robust earthy text, ‘Clap, clap, par un matin’, has also been included. The vocal ensemble is transparent, evenly balanced and well defined in its declamation, and sympathetically recorded.

This is the first recording in a series of three, in which The Clerks’ Group extends its repertoire into the Medieval period. It comprises a sequence of Mass movements taken from the fourteenth century French manuscript, the Ivrea Codex, the most important source for ars nova music. Together with these are nine motets by Machaut: three in French, composed over song melodies, three in Latin, setting religious and political texts, and three which are to be found in the Ivrea manuscript. In addition, the Group has included the delightfully suggestive Clap, clap, par un matin. An old-fashioned ars antiqua style motet, it is out of place with everything else but, with its robust text and rustic charm, it is too entertaining to be left out of either the Ivrea Codex or this recording. As with most of the Mass movements, it is attributed to the ubiquitous ‘Anon’.

Particular mention should be made of Machaut’s three Latin motets. The beautifully mellow Tu qui gregem, Christe qui lux, with its vibrant interplay between the top voices, and the startling harmonies of the contemplative Felix Virgo. Outstanding among the mass movements is the Credo, and the closing anonymous motet Post missarum, a joyous entreaty to Deo Gracias. The jewel of this recording, though, is Machaut’s Martyrum. Dedicated to St. Quentin, it is full of subtly shifting harmonic colours, within a beautifully fluid framework. Even though it has to be said that there are occasional intonation problems and the odd clumsy attack at the start of phrases, this is a very enjoyable disc. The ensemble’s blend is excellent and the recording is to be recommended, even to those among us who would not count themselves medieval enthusiasts.

Ian Colson

Performers of Renaissance Music for Voices and Instruments – 17 May 1999

Fresh from triumphant Ockeghem recordings, The Clerks’ Group are perhaps the group currently best placed to tackle the interpretative and technical challenges of Machaut, and this they do with stunning assurance and utterly convincing panache. This is medieval vocal music sung to the very highest standard and in such an engaging manner as to charm even the non-specialist general listener. The Signum engineers have very wisely provided the performances with a pleasant acoustic bloom, allowing the music truly to sing. The anonymous Mass movements are charmingly sun, and the performance of the ars antiqua-style ‘Clap, clap’ is witty and fresh. However it is in the slightly melancholy chansons of Machaut that the ensemble excel themselves, with impassioned and expressive singing of the first order. A tremendous disk!

D James Ross

The Evening Standard – May 1999 & The Times – 29 April 1999 

War, plague and a schismatic papal court: this is the world of the 14th Century composer Guillaume de Machaut as presented by The Clerks’ Group and Edward Wickham on this enticing disc, the first of a series of three to feature a particular medieval manuscript, and other music by one composer from that manuscript.

So Machaut’s motets are inset here within a framework of anonymous Mass music associated with Avignon from the Ivrea Codex, the prime source for ars nova music. Much of it is recorded here for the first time: the Clerks’ Group is already well-known for championing neglected Renaissance repertoire, and its cunning programming enriches its fresh performances, recorded in an airy church acoustic.

MusicWeb.co.uk, October 2002

Mediaeval music is not everyone’s cup of tea. As a period of history the 14th century seems just so long ago that it bears little on the experiences of people today. Artistically, however, the period was one of startling new sounds and colours, both visually and aurally. As far as music is concerned the name of Guillaume de Machaut stands massively above all others, but there was actually plenty of musical composition apart from Machaut. The music of the era is well worth hearing, and far more varied than one might suspect, but it does need some intellectual input from the listener.

Edward Wickham’s The Clerk’s Group present on this disc a selection of music from one of the important manuscript sources of 14th century polyphony, now living, rather touchingly, in the chapter house of the cathedral in the small Italian alpine town of Ivrea – hence the name. In common with many such collections the name of Machaut features largely and this disc includes several chanson melodies masquerading as motets. The idea that there should be several lines of text sung at once (in some cases sacred and secular at the same time) strikes the modern listener as strange. Clearly the obvious audibility of the words themselves was not considered of such importance to mediaeval composers as to us. The result of these differing but simultaneous lines of text is that the music receives a richness of colour from the varied vowel sounds. This wide palette makes for fascinatingly kaleidoscopic results. [Sample 1]

On this recording The Clerk’s Group consists of five singers and they are able to reproduce the complex lines of this intricate polyphony with clarity and, in many cases a clear sense of fun. The opening anonymous Sanctus belies the image of mediaeval music as dark and austere. [Sample 2] At other points Wickham manages to get his singers to produce an intensity of sound that is equally impressive in its quiet restraint. The opening of Tu qui gregem/Plange, regni respublica feels like a large sound, but in fact is merely a sound with intensity and direction. From that opening the piece develops and grows in a succession of quietly intense phrases of hocketts in the upper voices over a slow moving bass line. The architectural concept is impressively brought across.

Of the anonymous pieces most are Mass movements. The largest of these is a Credo at over six minutes long. Whoever this music is by, they knew what they were doing. Clearly this was composed with the professional musicians of Cathedral establishments in mind and the small forces with which Wickham performs this underline the essentially soloistic and virtuoso nature of the composition. In this regard the sparkling sound of Lucy Ballard is particularly enjoyable, although what the justification for using a female alto in this repertoire is it is hard to understand. In theory, all of this music was sung by men – castrati unlikely, falsettists probable. If today’s performer is going to go down the route of period pronunciation and one-voice-to-a-part performance then why not use all- male forces as well? In this case it is possibly just because Ballard makes a lovely noise; certainly this reviewer is pleased she is there, although musicologically she is unsupportable. [Sample 3] As a well performed introduction to some of the finest, if rarer, music of the mediaeval period, this is a good disc.

Peter Wells

Musical Pointers

This excellent CD has been received after reviewing the concert of the same repertoire at Blackheath Halls. It is quite magnificent, superbly recorded and comprehensively documentedc, 44 pages complete with all texts and background essays, all of it on line at Signum’s model website and where you can listen to several tracks. So who needs more words from me?

Instead, I allow myself just a word of reiteration about a hoppy-horse of mine – clarity in booklets. On the Web everything is clear black-on-white, but in Jan Hart’s Booklet design and typesetting the texts are printed paley on off-white background; artistic, yes, but it would all be far easier to read in strong black type, especially when necessarily small.

The CD s otherwise unreservedly recommended

Peter Graham Woolf

Choir & Organ, July/ August 2001

This is the first of three forays into medieval repertoire planned by The Clerks’ Group, who appear more than at home in this beautifully-programmed selection of 14th-century polyphony. Variety, of both genre and combinations of voices, is at a premium, and it is a particularly enterprising idea to interweave the predominantly sacred pieces of the Ivrea Codex with the more intimate, secular idiom of the Machaut motets. Yet it is the remarkable assurance and lustre of the five-person group’s sonority, a finely-judged marriage of individual vocal character and overall blend, which really distinguishes this disc. There is plenty of control here (as we have come to expect of this ensemble), but also agility and, where it is called for, flexibility, which makes for rewarding consort singing throughout.

Of the 23 Machaut motets, Edward Wickham has selected some that are already well-known and others, like the plangent Lasse! and Se j’aim mon loyal ami, which deserve more hearings. It is also good to hear the three late, extended Latin motets, with their wonderful staggered starts, sung as a set; Machaut’s music is intricate and rich, and The Clerk’s Group bring out his contemplative side particularly well, even if in a few items (such as Qui es promesse and Ha! Fortune) more momentum would have given greater bite to the rhythmic interplay. Sometimes (although not often) it would also have been possible to have a greater sense of each individual texted part pursuing its own course and finding its own moments of expression; in particular, the clarity of Lucy Ballard’s wonderfully lithe alto can put William Missin’s less forthright tone in the shade, creating more imbalance than variety. This is, however, never a problem in the Ivrea pieces, where the character of each is unerringly found in well-defined performances. This is an excellent release and a valuable addition to the discography.

James Weeks

Early Music, August 2000

This year marks the seventh centenary of Guillame de machaut’s presumed birth date, an anniversary to be celebrated by at least one radio tribute and a conference. Now seems an apt moment to review some recordings of his music that have appeared in the past two or three years. These recent offerings bear testimony to Machaut’s mastery in combining those two art forms that in his own day were viewed as two distinct representations of music: that is, poetry (known as ‘natural’ music), and music proper (‘artificial’ music). These performances also well illustrate some of the different interpretative possiblilities that this reportory affords to the modern-day ensemble. Indeed, each disc offers a different perspective on our composer, conjuring up some of the varying personas he assumes in our present-day collective imaginations. Machaut the intellectual churchman, Machaut the romantic courtier and machaut the last of the trouveres.

In their disc Guillame de Machaut: Motets and music from the Ivrea Codex (SIgnum SIGCD011, rec 1998), The Clerk’s Group, directed by Edward Wickham, present an imaginative programme that reconstructs a musical context for Machaut’s motets. In addition to the nine motets by our composer is an interesting selection of contemporary works from the Ivrea Codex, a source crucial to our understanding of the Ars Nova, as the informative liner notes point out. The inclusion of these anonymous Mass movements and motets is most welcome; unattributed works from this period tend to be neglected by performers and scholars alike. The more modest ‘bread-and-butter’ liturgical music provides an interesting aural foil to Machaut’s intricate polyphony, but its inclusion also offers some insight into the musical environment within which our composer was operating. This is the kind of music tha tMachaut presumably would have heard, and perhaps sung, while a canon at Rheims Cathedral. Moreover, there are some real little gems here, such as the quirky Sanctus (track 11) with its playful hocket.

The arrangement of the material on the disc is well thought out. The Machaut motets, grouped in threes, are framed by the anonymous works, and a similar concern for stylistic contrast is evident within the repertorial groupings. the Clerks also ensure variety by carefully exploiting the different vocal timbres at their disposal. For instance, after the initial four-voice Sanctus (using both altos, tenor and baritone), the following three-voice pieces combine variously male or female alto with two tenors, or two tenors and baritone. The combination of male and female alto has clear potential for timbral differentiation of triplum and duplum parts, especially useful where these set different texts as in the motet. However, Lucy Ballard’s etched tone is so much clearer  than William Missin’s dusckier vocal colour that sometimes the force of the contrapuntal play between the two voices is lost.

The concern for the overall ‘listenability’ of the disc is also manifest in the contrasting interpretations applied to the individual works. For each of machaut’s motets with song tenors (tracjs 4-6), the Clerks succeed in creating a very different mood, through variation in vocal combination, tempo and general interpretation. Trop plus est bele / Biaute paree de valour (track 5) is given a measured, perhaps rather slow , tempo, but one which allows for clear delivery of the texts and for contrapuntal detail to emerge. This contrasts with the mood of the previous  motet, Machaut’s wonderfully expressive Dame / Fins cuer (track 4), a work previously recorded to great effect by Gothic Voices (The study of love, Hyperion, rec 1992). There, Gothic Voices exploiting their characteristically smoouth sound presented a performance that dwelt on the musical intensity of the work. The Clerks, less concerned with blending the upper parts, also produce a compelling performance that really focuses on the expression of the words.

Indeed, the Clerks’ concern for  text delivery and interpretation is to my mind one fo the great quialities of this disc (note also their use of Middle French pronunciation in the Latin texts). Similar attention to detail is manifest in their intelligent shaping of the musical structure of works. Their strategy is alays considered: careful pacing and dynamic control combine with gradual increases in intensity to maintain tension and to render the work coherent. Listen for instance to the controlled effect created in Machaut’s extraordinary essay Lasse / Se j’aim (track 6), where the straining counterpoint repeatedly implies but averts resolution: their understated approach and gradual build-up is nicely judged. All in all, this disc comes highly recommended – it makes for engaging and informative listening. Let us hope that The Clerks’ Group will venture further into the 14th century repertory in the near future.  

Yoland Plumley

  1. Sanctus: Sanans fragilia – Anon/Ivrea – – [3:58]
  2. Kyrie – ‘Chipre’/Ivrea – – [2:12]
  3. Gloria: Et verus homo – Anon/Ivrea – – [5:30]
  4. Dame/Fins cuers doulz – Machaut – – [2:29]
  5. Trop plus est bele/Biaute paree de valour – Machaut – – [2:22]
  6. Lasse!/Se j’aim mon loyal ami – Machaut – – [3:56]
  7. Credo – Anon/Ivrea – – [6:07]
  8. Tu qui gregem/Plange, regni respublica – Machaut – – [4:15]
  9. Christe qui lux/Veni creator spiritus – Machaut – – [4:07]
  10. Felix virgo/Inviolata genitrix – Machaut – – [5:04]
  11. Sanctus – Anon/Ivrea – – [3:10]
  12. Clap, clap/Sus Robin – Anon/Ivrea – – [1:33]
  13. Qui es promesse/Ha! Fortune – Machaut – – [2:33]
  14. Martyrum/Diligenter inquiramus – Machaut – – [3:07]
  15. Amours/Faus samblant – Machaut – – [2:52]
  16. Post missarum sollempnia/Post misse modulamina – Anon/Ivrea – – [2:50]