Severe medieval music

In the January 10, 2011, issue of The New Yorker, music critic Alex Ross writes about current vocal groups performing medieval and Renaissance polyphony. Among the groups he discusses are the Tallis Scholars, Alamire, Blue Heron and Stile Antico. But one passage of his review article especially caught my interest:

The most daring approach still belongs, after several decades, to Marcel Pèrés’s Ensemble Organum, whose tremulous, darkly florid delivery of medieval and Renaissance music is based more on Byzantine chant than on the familiar Benedictine manner. … Pèrés and his singers presented Guillaume de Machaut’s “Messe de Notre Dame.” Severe, relentless, devoid of ambient comfort, it was an eerie approximation of an unrecoverable past.

Now THAT seemed like my kind of music. So I found Ensemble Organum’s recording of the Machaut Mass on iTunes, and it is extraordinary. Note especially the French pronunciation of the Latin text

Here’s an excerpt, the Gloria in excelsis:

It reminds me of Roman Catholic Church vs. American shapenote singing. Not the kind of vocal production we normally associate with religious music, but arresting.

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