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Briefly Noted: Anonymous 4 and Las Huelgas

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Secret Voices, Anonymous 4

(released on October 11, 2011)
HMU 807510 | 58'27"
After recent discs of Christmas music, both new and re-released, Anonymous 4 has turned again to the Las Huelgas Codex for its new recording. This famous Spanish manuscript was copied between 1300 and 1325 for the Cistercian convent of Santa María la Real de Las Huelgas in Burgos (see this catalog of the music in it). This monastic house was a wealthy foundation, like others in Europe, that counted among its professed nuns a number of noble ladies (see Jo Ann McNamara's Sisters in Arms: Catholic Nuns through Two Millennia). The Cistercian order preferred more austere music for its liturgies, but the codex contains pieces of the greatest sophistication, apparently intended for performance by these highly educated and musically discerning sisters. (Or was it? The main copyist of the codex was a male scribe, and some scholars believe that the sisters had a choir of trained male clerks to perform at their services.) It is hardly the first time the Las Huelgas pieces have been recorded -- other fine recordings have been released by Sequentia, Discantus, and the Huelgas Ensemble, among others -- but the selection of music, forming a Lady Mass and abbreviated Office (in honor of the Virgin Mary), is particularly pleasing (and reminiscent of one of the group's best recordings). A few infelicitous intonation issues, both in monophonic and polyphonic pieces (and not the tremulous interpretation of unusual neumes in the chant pieces), though minor in the grand scheme of things, are an unfortunate blemish. Still, this is music that hits Anonymous 4 in their wheelhouse, and another way to listen to the intriguing pieces in the Las Huelgas Codex is always welcome. Students learning solfege will especially enjoy the discant piece ("Fa fa mi / Ut re mi"), marked in the codex with the corresponding solfege syllables as a way to teach how to sing proper intervallic relationships.

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