Marcel Pérès and Ensemble Organum : Machaut’s Mass


Ensemble Organum is a group performing early music, co-founded in 1982 by Marcel Pérès and is based in France. Its members have changed, but have included at one time or another, Josep Cabré, Josep Benet, Gérard Lesne, Antoine Sicot, Malcolm Bothwell. They have often collaborated with Lycourgos Angelopoulos and are influenced by Orthodox music.

The group mainly focuses on the performance of music from the Middle Ages, including Beneventan, Old Roman, Gallican, Carolingian and Mozarabic chants. However, the repertoire includes renaissance polyphony as well as more recent works.

peres3The ensemble was formerly based at Sénanque Abbey and Royaumont Abbey. Since 2001 it has shared facilities in the precinct of Moissac Abbey with the Centre itinérant de recherche sur les musiques anciennes (Centre for Itinerant Research of Medieval and Early Music). In addition to musical performance, the ensemble also works with musicologists and historians on musical research from this period.

A work I have studied somewhat, is Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame and have listened to a variety of recordings of it.  However, one that intrigues me is the one done by the Ensemble Organum.  It is not without controversy since it sounds like no other in the catalog.  Fabrice Fitch reviewing the recording in Gramophone had this to say:

peres1For Peres Machaut is profoundly weird. It would exceed the scope of this review to detail its many eccentricities, but the main one must be the vocal colour adopted by Peres’s singers. In his last few recordings, he has worked with traditional Corsican singers whose highly distinctive timbre and approach to ornamentation he has taken as the basis for his explorations. How far the ensembles have evolved as a result can be gauged by listening to their recording of the Tournai Mass, done some six years ago. There the singers (led by those magical Catalans Josep Benet and Josep Cabre) were classically trained, and though their sound was distinctive enough, it could hardly be described as bizarre. In this particular case, I suspect, a few listeners may have to overcome a powerful urge to switch off pretty early on.

Which would be a great shame. Notwithstanding the obvious misgivings one might have (approach to musica ficta, to ornamentation, to plainsong intonation, and problems of ensemble), Peres’s reading makes a point that is so often conveniently ignored: we have no idea what Machaut’s singers actually sounded like, or how they produced the sound in their throats. Peter Phillips once made that point, envisaging the possibility that we might find the ‘authentic’ sound unbearable. As I have got used (slowly) to Organum’s sound, I have been reminded how far Machaut’s world is from our own. This recording questions a fundamental and untestable assumption about medieval polyphony. As such, it is an intriguing alternative to other all-vocal performances, even if there are too many other imponderables to warrant an unconditional recommendation.’

Ensemble Organum Discography

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