Music review: Anonymous 4 at Dumbarton Oaks

By Charles T. Downey
Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Anonymous 4, the quartet of women known for singing medieval chant and polyphony with faultless intonation and translucent vocal color, brought its comeback tour to Dumbarton Oaks on Monday night. After almost 20 years of acclaimed work in concert and on disc, the group stopped performing a few years ago, a suspension that has happily proved temporary.

In the new configuration Ruth Cunningham replaces Johanna Maria Rose, returning to sing alongside Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, who replaced Cunningham when she left the group in 1998. Three favorite repertories collide in a new Christmas program, "The Cherry Tree": late medieval chant, 15th-century English polyphony and Anglo-American folk song. The juxtaposition is less jarring than it might seem, underscoring the melodic fluidity, open and modal harmonies, parallelisms and pre-tonal dissonance that these styles share.

Two chant sequences exemplified the group's hallmark sound, four voices blending perfectly in vowel color, tone and intonation, with a rhythmic pulse neither precipitous nor lugubrious. Many of the English Renaissance selections were ingenious examples of vernacular commentaries on liturgical chants, as in "Veni redemptor gentium," in which the text refers to Ambrose, the author of the Gregorian hymn quoted in the refrain. The folk song settings, including carols by William Billings, were sung simply, without exaggerating the strident qualities often found in that style.

One could complain here and there about shortcomings, especially in solo selections (one for each singer), but the good news is that Anonymous 4 appears to be on the way to reclaiming its former glory. Recordings of this program and another concert of music from the Las Huelgas Codex are planned for release by Harmonia Mundi in the coming year.

Downey is a freelance writer.

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