Machaut: Messe de Nostre Dame

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LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Messe de Nostre Dame
PERFORMER: Ensemble Organum/Marcel Pérès
This is the earliest complete setting of the Mass by a single composer and it dates from c1360. The work has been recorded many times and in many ways – with chorus, with solo singers, with instruments playing the lower parts, at written pitch or transposed and with or without accompanying chants from a church service.


The Ensemble Organum recording breaks with convention in its view that ornamentation ‘is essential’ even though ‘it sometimes unbalances a chord to strengthen the sound of the next one’. This approach works quite well in the unexpectedly forthright Sanctus, but in the Gloria the chromatic nature of some of the ornaments (and their exuberant, caterwauling delivery) obscure the delicate clashes of harmony already intended by Machaut.


By contrast, the Naxos recording does not place Machaut’s piece in the context of a church service and it only employs one singer per part, but it was recorded in Machaut’s own cathedral at Rheims and its musical impact is great. Its only serious rival is the Hilliard Ensemble version (on Hyperion) but the delicate lucidity of the Oxford Camerata – especially in the Agnus Dei – gives the Naxos recording the edge. Anthony Pryer