22 February 2005

A CD Review--Anonymous 4

Today, I bought my first Anonymous 4 CD. It seems like I ought to mark the date on my calendar or something, so that I can celebrate the anniversary every year. Yes, it's that good. It was $20 at Barnes&Noble, but it was well worth it, and I can't believe I waited so long to finally buy one of their numerous (18!) recordings. These women have been singing together for 18 years, performing mostly medieval chant and polyphony, with occasional forays into renaissance, 18th and 19th-century American, and British Isles folk music.

The recording I now proudly own is "An English Ladymass." As the title implies, it contains 13th and 14th-century chant and polyphony in honor of the Blessed Mother, all from English manuscripts. The liner notes point out the difficulty of creating an edition of this music, because "there exists now not even one substantial intact manuscript source from which to work." Some reconstructions were necessary, but they are beautifully done. The four voices blend in near-perfect unity, never harsh, even when rendering startling dissonance. The sometimes virtuostic ornamentation in the soprano line is always delicate and precise. Their tone is very pure and innocent, free from any muddling vibrato, cloying sweetness, or the annoying harshness of some other medieval groups. The entire recording gives a great impression of space, light, and warmth, which seems to be how this music ought to be sung. Medieval (and renaissance) sacred music ought to be given the space of a medieval cathedral, the light of a hundred stained glass windows, and the warmth of devotion to God and the use of the gifts He gave us; Anonymous 4 does this music justice.

On our best days, a quartet of women from our schola might approach this kind of greatness on a single piece of music, but never so apparently consistently, and with such an enormous repertoire. There are 21 tracks, some of which are Gregorian chant, others are harmonized chant, and others are more orignial compositions. All are in Latin except Edi beo thu hevene quene, which is Middle English. Anonymous 4 CD's are rather expensive, but well worth it, and I can't wait to obtain more.

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