Fortune's Wheel,
Pastourelle: The Art of
Machaut & the Trouveres

(Dorian, 2002)

Fortune's Wheel consists of four musicians with extensive experience in the performance of medieval music. Here they sing and play 20 selections composed by 12th- through 14th-century trouv¸res, northern relatives of the troubadours who originated in southern France.

Machaut is the best known of the composers represented. Prolific in many forms, he sometimes used trouv¸re rhyming schemes and constitutes about a third of the program.

Most arrangements include one or two female or male voices, usually accompanied by violin and/or harp. The variety of combinations is surprising considering the size of the group. Each track is a little different. These are fine and thoughtful performers.

Texts are in French. Notes include a translation. The album title, Pastourelle, is the term for a trouv¸re poem describing the actions and feelings of a knight riding out to meet his lady in the forest. There can be a touch of raciness, but the poets used the concept of fine amour, or refined love, now more often called courtly love in English. Thus we hear:

So if I do not have some
Relief from her,
It would at least be courteous of her
To show me some pity because of this.

That's a rather sedate anticipation of Mick Jagger's lack of satisfaction, and contrary to their current rakish image, medieval French trouv¸res and troubadours were serious poets and musicians, closer in spirit to the art of the songs of Schubert than that of the Rolling Stones. They were an inspiration to the poetry of Dante, who admired them greatly.

There's no doubt that Fortune's Wheel knows the history. We hear authentic-sounding instruments, and the playing and singing are based on well-researched views of original performance practices. Vibrato, for example, is slight and rare. Instead we have the gradual "squeeze" or swelling of held notes. The result may be close to what King Richard the Lionhearted was fond of listening to. Nobody knows for sure, but I can say for sure that it's an acquired taste for the contemporary ear. And, though the academic and performing communities are fairly unified (the conductor Roger Norrington recently authored a New York Times article on the evils of vibrato), the authentic approach is not without dissenters.

Fortune's Wheel does pay attention to the earthiness of trouv¸re subject matter. (One member of the group, Shira Kammen, has even founded another ensemble, Class V Music, "dedicated to performance on river rafting trips." There's a concept that has me more than a little boggled.) Furthermore, critics describing their concerts have been generous in praising the liveliness of performance. So specialists and others demanding authentic performance can't go wrong.

Alas, count me among the unconvinced, if not the dissenters. Even if the approach does at times have a simple beauty, I'm more in sympathy with the outlaws of medieval art who add drums, tambourines, trumpets and even vibrato at the drop of a ladies nylon scarf. I doubt King Richard, a great-grandson of the first troubadour and patron of his own singing poet, would have objected.

- Rambles
written by Ron Bierman
published 22 March 2003