Tuesday, October 18, 2011

New Album Review: Anonymous 4 "Secret Voices"

The “secret voices” of the album’s title refers to Cistercian nuns (of mostly aristocratic birth) living at Las Huelgas, a convent near Burgos in south-central Spain. The “secret” was that these women were singing polyphony (music with two or more voices with independent melodies) despite an edict from church fathers forbidding the practice. The polyphonic music, as well as secular and other forms of sacred music, is found in the Codex Las Huelgas, a collection of European music spanning the entire 13th and early 14th centuries. Anonymous 4 sing music from the Codex on this new recording.

One of the things that set Anonymous 4 apart from other groups singing early music is the thoughtful way they research and construct a program. Rather than rattle off a dozen pieces from the Codex, they’ve built a program around a “day” of music in honor of the Virgin Mary. But it’s not a reconstruction of the medieval divine office (specific prayers chanted at prescribed hours of the day), since they also include music that refers to monastic life.
There are some things that are certainties: the sun will rise in the morning and Anonymous 4 is going to sing this music brilliantly. There’s some challenging work here, like the tricky rhythmic turns that drive two conductus (sacred song for two or more voices) Ave maris stella and Mater patris et filia, both of which are deftly navigated by the quartet. Don’t believe anybody who says medieval sacred music is dour because the group sings a bouncy Benedicamus domino à 3 that’s a joyful toe-tapper. Another misconception to toss aside is that this music is cold. What may well be the most beautiful selection on the album is the heartfelt planctus (lament) on the death of one of the sisters, O monialis conscio. That’s just a small sampling of the 23 little treasures on the album.

There’s really little one can say about the performances. If you care about pure tone, spot-on pitch, rhythmic dexterity and earnest emotional engagement you are going to love this album. Long-time fans of Anonymous 4 will snap this up whether critics rave or not. Newcomers take note, everything you have read about Anonymous 4 is true, listen to Secret Voices and you’ll know I’m speaking the truth.

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