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Anonymous 4 to Retire Again

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On Yoolis Night, Anonymous 4
(Harmonia Mundi, 1993)

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An English Ladymass, Anonymous 4
(Harmonia Mundi, 1993)
The quartet of voices Anonymous 4, renowned specialists in medieval chant and polyphony, have announced that they will retire from performance after the 2015-2016 season. We have heard this before and continued to enjoy their performances, of medieval and contemporary music, after they made their last comeback from retirement, and not just in previous repertoire but in new territory. In what was billed as the group's final appearance on the Fortas Chamber Music series, on Thursday night in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, the reasons for this second retirement came across pretty clearly in the first third or so of this 75-minute program with no intermission. Happily, the voices all warmed up and returned to their accustomed beauty, but the sounds of fatigue and weakness were unmistakable in more than one voice.

Two things that made Anonymous 4's performances so good remained true nevertheless: they sing exquisite and rarely heard repertory, transcribed expertly by one of their members, musicologist Susan Hellauer, and they sing it with an ascetic simplicity that is precious to my ears. The only sound during this concert, of music selected from their various recordings (including those two shown here), was singing -- no talking from the artists, and no instrumental sound, with pitches taken silently from a pitchfork and then sung to the others. If the audience had taken the hint printed in the program -- admittedly in letters that were probably too small for most to notice -- and not applauded after every damn piece, it would have been perfectly austere.

Many of the pieces sounded much like they do on the group's excellent recordings, discs that are regular listening in our house during Advent and Christmastide. One thing that did change in some of the chant pieces, like the opening Gregorian hymn, Vox clara ecce intonat, was a shift from the more unmetered Solesmes approach to chant, the "equalist" interpretation where each note, single or in neumes, receives one "beat" that can be lengthened by an episema or other indication. In a nod to more recent theories about what some forms of chant notation may indicate, this piece was sung with more long and short values, although not strictly metrical, as another carol remained, Gabriele from Heven-king, a gorgeous Middle English version of the Latin carol Angelus ad virginem. (I believe that one piece, the conductus Ave Maria gracia plena, from their La Bele Marie disc, was cut from the concert program.)

Other Reviews:

Cecelia H. Porter, A cappella group Anonymous 4 at the Kennedy Center (Washington Post, December 13)
Three of the singers performed a solo piece, including the lovely Lullay my child -- This endris nithgt and Song of the Nuns from Chester from the Cherry Tree disc, moments of still quiet and simplicity. Selections from the English Ladymass disc, which I still think is the most perfect thing the group ever recorded, were especially appreciated: these live performances of the two-part Edi beo þu hevene quene and the ravishing conductus Salve virgo virginum will remain in my memory long after the group is no longer singing together. The came full circle by concluding with the chant Hodie Christus natus est, the antiphon sung at the Magnificat during Vespers on Christmas Day, which was the first track on the On Yoolis Night disc. A brief encore, an anonymous Ite missa est, told us politely that the Mass was ended. Deo gratias.

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