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Anonymous 4 Goes Caroling

available at Amazon
Noël: Carols and Chants for Christmas
(re-release compilation of Wolcum Yule, Legends of St. Nicholas, On Yoolis Night, and A Star in the East)

available at Amazon
The Cherry Tree: Songs, Carols,
and Ballads for Christmas
Anonymous 4

(released on September 14, 2010)
HMU 807453 | 58'40"
The peerless and now resurgent vocal quartet Anonymous 4 won last year's Ionarts Best Christmas Concert award last year, with their Cherry Tree program at Dumbarton Oaks. They are currently in the lead to win this "coveted" award for a second year in a row, with Thursday night's concert at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. The program, called Noël: Carols and Chants for Christmas, is drawn from five of the group's celebrated Christmas albums: the most recent one is last year's Cherry Tree program, recorded on a CD we have already highly recommended; the group re-released a 4-CD set of the others (Wolcum Yule, Legends of St. Nicholas, On Yoolis Night, and A Star in the East) a few years ago, which is a bargain (at $28.99) for anyone who does not already own any of those discs. Tickets were reportedly sold out, but the dusting of snow that fell earlier in the day apparently kept a few concert-goers home.

Something about the austerity of the music selected -- lots of chant and other monophony, with many simple hymns and carols in unusual versions -- hit all the right Christmas buttons, as if you had wandered into the home of four talented and knowledgeable women and got to listen as they celebrated Christmas with a few old favorites. I was reminded inevitably of a scene in The Lion in Winter (at 5:22 in this video), a movie I habitually watch again at this time of year (you think you have a tricky time navigating the family reunion at Christmas): only candlelight could have improved the atmosphere. Gregorian chant selections heading up many of the sets, one for each of the five CDs (with no intermission), set a simple but intense tone. The mostly unmetered chant pieces flowed freely in tempo, in pleasing contrast to other monophonic and polyphonic pieces to which the group gave a more regular pulse, never too slow but also not over a certain boundary into a rushed tempo.

Four solo selections from the Cherry Tree punctuated the breaks between sets, highlighting the different sounds of each voice: Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek rich and motherly in Qui creavit caelum, Ruth Cunningham clear and pristine in Lullay my child, Marsha Genensky bright and folksy in The Cherry Tree Carol, and Susan Hellauer a little rough at places, in Tydings trew and in the polyphonic selections, from what was obviously a persistent cough (but it added a bit of whiskey color to the lowest notes). Whereas most of the polyphony was of the homophonic conductus variety at which the group excels, the four-texted motet Exordium/Nate dei/Concrepet/Verbum caro was a most intriguing jumble of harmonies and Babel-like word confusion.

Other Reviews:

Joe Banno, Anonymous 4's 'Noel' concert: Holiday in harmony (Washington Post, December 17)

Vivien Schweitzer, Noel in the Museum, Medieval Edition (New York Times, December 15)
Selections from the 20th century were woven among the medieval ones with striking ease: John Taverner's setting of William Blake's poem Little Lamb and A god, and yet a man?, a piece originally for double chorus by Geoffrey Burgon, a television and film composer who died this past September (probably most famous for the score of Monty Python's Life of Brian -- see the obituary by Terry Jones in The Guardian). Just as these rather different repertories -- medieval chant and polyphony, vernacular and Latin carols, post-tonal and folk music -- mixed together easily, the country encore Beautiful Star of Bethlehem, by Arthur Leroy Phipps (of the Phipps Family), seemed just as sincere.

In collegial tribute to The Opera Tattler, the audience for this delectable concert was extraordinarily well behaved, except for one man (on the left aisle, Row J) who kept crinkling his plastic bag. Honestly, ushers should be instructed to confiscate these noisy bags at the door. Fortunately, he left early -- unfortunately, in the middle of the third selection. Someone toward the top of the theater on the left noisily unwrapped a candy or lozenge for most of Ruth Cunningham's solo on Lullay my child.

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