New London Consort/Pickett, Queen Elizabeth hall, London

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The Independent Culture

To listen straight through the five "movements" that constitute most late Medieval or Renaissance settings of the Ordinary of the Mass can, of course, be an intensely rewarding musical experience, as one picks up the subtle motivic connections between sections or follows the subterranean unfoldings of some cantus firmus throughout the whole. But, as spaced periodically through a long and complex liturgy, the original effect would, of course, have been quite different.

For a start, long stretches of the service would have comprised mumbled prayers – musical only in a loosely rhythmic sense. Then there would have been equally protracted intonings, largely on single pitches, of such additional items as the Collect and the Gospel. Within this context, the florid curves of an unaccompanied plainchant Gaudeamus or Ave Maria would have sounded relatively opulent, and the fully polyphonic sections of the Ordinary itself positively exotic.

In attempting to reconstruct on the un-numinous stage of the QEH a votive mass as it might have been given at a side-alter in Rheims cathedral in the late 14th century, the scholar Mary Berry spared us the mumbled prayers, but assembled all the constituents in a continuous 70-minute sequence – framing them, on admittedly more speculative grounds, with three jigging two-part "intabulations" for chamber organ, played by David Roblou, from the 14th-century Robertsbridge Codex.

The intonations and chants fell to Andrew Carwood and five members of his prize-winning chamber choir The Cardinal's Musick, who responded with spacious and eloquently contoured phrasing. The poly- phonic sections were sung by four voices of the New London Consort under their director, and prime-mover of the whole event, Philip Pickett. And the chosen setting was Guillaume de Machaut's wonderful Messe de Notre Dame (c1362) – the earliest complete Ordinary by a single known composer.

Though Pickett effectively pointed Machaut's more daring (at least to modern ears) dissonances, he tended towards a casual briskness, occasionally imperilling the clarity of the syncopated hiccuping of the upper parts in the Gloria and Credo and, more seriously, the harmonic breadth of the high spot of Machaut's score, the Agnus Dei. This had little of the radiance achieved by Jeremy Summerly's Oxford Camerata disc for the Naxos label, recorded in Rheims cathedral itself. Still, the conjunction of monkish costumes, sanctuary bells, a whiff of incense and back projections of the cathedral's incredible complexities of decoration conveyed, at fleeting moments, just a tangential hint of how it must all once have been.

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