Tenor Angus Smith of the Orlando Consort prefaces the booklet notes accompanying this intriguing release with a quotation from René Clemencic that deserves being reproduced here in full: “[Joseph Mertin] told me that, I think it was in the 1930s, when they performed the Messe of Machaut, somebody from the public protested and said, ‘We don¹t want to hear dodecaphonic music, we want to hear old music’.”

Nobody who has heard Guillaume de Machaut’s enigmatic ‘Messe de Nostre Dame’, written around the middle of the fourteenth century, can deny the sheer strangeness of its musical language, which, as Smith points out, has lost none of its power to shock. So why bother to write a modern companion piece? Thirty-year-old composer Tarik O’Regan tells us why by doing just that. O’Regan’s ‘Scattered Rhymes’, written in 2006, was commissioned by the Spitalfields Festival and is meant to be performed together with the ‘Messe’. Not only is much of the material for its musical building blocks quarried from the earlier work, but the texts are from Machaut’s time: three sonnets from Petrarch’s ‘Canzoniere’ (sung by a quartet of soloists) and three stanzas from an anonymous English source (sung by a choir). From the constricted ‘scrunches’, spacious intervals and pulsating repeated notes and fragments of Part I through the chorus’s expansive commenting on the quartet’s severe double canon in Part II to the energetic syncopations and hypnotic repetitions of the ‘slow motion’ Part III, O’Regan’s work breathes. Not only that, but the dual nature of the texts, which equivocates between earthly and divine love – perhaps even eros and agape – makes for a multi-layered gloss on Machaut’s unequivocally spiritual yet curiously modern text. The effect engenders both clarity and mystery.

‘Scattered Rhymes’ is performed first on the disc, followed by the Messe; this order is reversed for the final two works, Machaut’s ‘Douce dame jolie’ and O’Regan’s ‘Virelai: Douce dame jolie’, the latter seeing O’Regan fitting out Machaut’s single-voice original with richly textured, though never gaudy, garments. Before this pair, Guillaume Dufay’s light-filled ‘Ave Regina celorum’ is used as the basis for Gavin Bryars’s equally luminous ‘Super flumina’. Here, ideas of resurrection and immortality look back to ‘Scattered Rhymes’ and the ‘Messe’ rather than forward to the sublunary concerns of the closing works.

Needless to say, these well-recorded performances are excellent throughout. The Orlando Consort and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, both under the expert direction of Paul Hillier, bring to O’Regan’s ‘Scattered Rhymes’ the required rhythmic precision and fine sense of balance and ensemble while still giving the impression of infinite elasticity. The ‘Messe’ is dark, rich and powerful; the famous highly embellished ‘Amens’ at the end of the ‘Gloria’ and ‘Credo’, as well as the ornate ‘Deo gracias’ of the ‘Ite missa est’, are especially stunning. The poised singing of tenor Mark Dobell’s unaccompanied ‘Douce dame jolie’ is also worthy of mention ­ as is the qualityof Smith’s notes, in which are
imbedded an illuminating commentary on ‘Scattered Rhymes’ by the composer himself.