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Four Centuries of Anonymous Chant

available at Amazon
Four Centuries of Chant,
Anonymous 4

(released on September 8, 2009)
Harmonia Mundi HMX 2907546
For almost twenty years after four women came together in 1986 to found a group dedicated to the performance of medieval chant and polyphony, Anonymous 4 was a fixture on the shelves of early music collectors. Their trademark sound was noted for its clarity, faultless unity of intonation, and pure and translucent vocal color, and they created programs that were both beautiful on the auditory surface and of considerable musicological interest, due to the guiding hand of one of their members, Susan Hellauer. Vocal problems began to appear in the early years of this millennium, heard at the group's 2004 concert in Washington, around the time that, for whatever reason, Anonymous 4 stopped touring and being an active ensemble, at least temporarily. For the first time since, a reconstituted Anonymous 4 will return to Washington this fall, a concert listed in our preview of the best on the upcoming classical music calendar. Johanna Maria Rose, who did not sound well at that 2004 concert, will not perform, replaced by Ruth Cunningham, who will now sing alongside Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, who had replaced Cunningham when she left the group in 1998.

Their new CD features no new material but is instead a repackaging of the monophonic tracks from ten of Anonymous 4's earlier albums. So, Anonymous 4 fans who might think, quite understandably, that the group has released a new recording do not need to rush out to buy this disc. On the other hand, someone looking for an introduction to the sound of Gregorian chant could do a lot worse than this lovely compilation, rather than one of the many wildly selling chant discs from the monks of Solesmes or Santa Domingo or elsewhere. What I love about Anonymous 4's approach to chant is that Hellauer makes transcriptions from manuscript sources and that the group uses research on regional pronunciation of Latin. What you hear on many chant recordings is the Solesmes editions, which are reconstructed amalgamations made from comparing many individual readings of chant melodies from all over Europe, performed according to the Solesmes method.

This is nothing against the monks of Solesmes, whose work I admire greatly and with whom I have visited and worked -- believe me, few things are as transcendent and beautiful as hearing the choir at Solesmes celebrate the Mass or Divine Office. However, the experience of singing and listening to chant in the Middle Ages was in no way homogeneous from place to place. Canons, monks, and nuns pronounced Latin differently, wrote Latin differently, and sang different versions of all chants. If you are used to singing the hymn Ave maris stella, for example, you will recognize that the Anonymous 4 version is that hymn but in a form that marks it as distinctly English (originally on the English Ladymass CD), as if you were a monk from somewhere else visiting an English monastery and hearing how things were sung differently there. Likewise, there are transcriptions from Aquitanian sources (with a memorable sort of trill to render the quilisma), the Codex Calixtinus (for the Sant'Iago CD), and an unforgettable Hungarian version of the Te Deum.


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