Anonymous 4, the vocal quartet specializing in Medieval European music, performed at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s new Calderwood Concert Hall on Sunday, January 28. Their program, called “Anthology 25,” comprised one item from each of their 23 CDs, plus two recent compositions, one of them a new work by David Lang.
Scholars have long used the designation “Anonymous IV” for the unidentified author of a 13th-century music treatise. An important source of information about music in Medieval Paris, it happened to be the fourth in a series of anonymous writings included in an eighteenth-century publication. Hence the name of the group is a learned pun, and a fitting one, given the group’s repertory and makeup. Much of what they perform is preserved anonymously, in manuscripts whose scribes are also unidentified. Founded in 1986, the group comprises Ruth Cunningham, Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek (who replaced Johanna Maria Rose).
According to the group’s website here, the program performed on Sunday has been taken on tour to celebrate their 25th anniversary, consists of six sets of two to six works each, on themes such as “Legends,” “Sisterhood,” and “Ardor.” A cynic might see this program in the same vein as pop-music concerts that are essentially marketing devices for CDs (or music downloads). Indeed, the rather artificial headings for the sets did not entirely hide the essentially arbitrary character of the one-item-per-CD format. Yet to this listener the program, which lasted a little over an hour (without intermission), was in no way a jumble. This was so despite the fact that the thematic organization largely ignored chronology and style. For instance, it juxtaposed a chanted Marian antiphon from Medieval England (“Quae est ista?”) with the new work by Lang. Yet by the end of the program, I was beginning to feel that I had heard perhaps a bit too much of the same thing. The styles were diverse, yet slow tempos and the singers’ generally reserved approach to nearly all the selections made for limited variety of actual sound, however lovely.
I hasten to add that the group’s generally quiet approach seems to me entirely appropriate to most of this repertory. Their way of singing it highlighted connections between the medieval and the contemporary numbers on the program. David Lang’s engaging “the wood and the vine”— no capital letters in this title or in that of the larger work, love fail, of which it is a part — made much of a three-note melodic formula common in so-called Gregorian chant. Lang’s musical language, which combines elements of Neo-Classical Stravinsky and New York minimalism, seemed not entirely unlike the moderately dissonant idiom of a polyphonic conductus and a carol, both from Medieval England, which preceded it on the program.
The two other recent works were broadly similar to Lang’s. A sustained, largely consonant setting of the Lord’s Prayer by the British composer John Tavener (performed in Anonymous 4’s own arrangement) contained echoes of both Medieval conductus and an eighteenth- or nineteenth-century English hymn. More interesting to this reviewer was “The Scientist,” a movement from Richard Einhorn’s A Carnival of Miracles. The scientist in question is Galileo, whose supposed statement Eppur si muove (“but it does move,” referring to the earth) forms the sole text. Starting in unison, the four voices repeat the three Italian words over and over. They gradually diverge from one another, introducing increasingly complex musical ideas. The roughly five-minute work concluded with what was probably the most forceful singing on the program, although still restrained by the standards of mainstream concert performance.
The minimalist elements here and in the Lang composition, together with several folk works on the program, exemplify the crossover between classical and vernacular music that has been a recurring theme in the work of Anonymous 4. In this they resemble several equally eclectic ensembles that have achieved comparable success in recent decades; the Kronos Quartet comes to mind. Like Kronos, Anonymous 4 include their own arrangements — here of folksongs and hymns — in their concerts and recordings. But they take care to identify them as such in their program booklets, which are unfailingly generous in the amount of information they provide about their often esoteric selections. Not for them is the vague mix of folk, medieval, and “world” music that has become increasingly fashionable in early-music performance during the past two decades. To be sure, the popularity of that sort of programming helps explain their own commercial success.
There is also, of course, a feminist element in what they do. In Sunday’s program it was evident in the inclusion of two chants by Hildegard of Bingen, a German twelfth-century abbess who was one of the few Medieval women composers who is identified by name. How much of the surviving medieval repertory was ever sung by women remains an open question. But its appropriation by four modern female musicians was probably a less momentous decision than the one to forego the instrumental accompaniment that 25 years ago was still practically required for early-music groups.
Scholarly opinion about historical practice already favored a cappella presentation of most of this repertory when Anonymous 4 began performing. But their decision to eschew instruments also melded happily with notions about the purity of unaccompanied voices, in music that is prevailingly sacred and frequently concerned with Mary and other female virgin saints. Of course, this manner of performance also meshes nicely with the type of folk singing that we think of as unspoiled and authentic because it is done without amplified or electric instruments, or with none at all. Marsha Gerensky offered an example in “You fair and pretty ladies,” sung alone in what seemed to these ears a fine imitation of southern Appalachian country singing.
Yet two other American songs, including Robert Lowry’s nineteenth-century hymn “Shall we gather at the river,” did not sound so very different from some of the medieval ones. One reason is that most were done so slowly. The American composer Charles Ives, who made his own idiosyncratic arrangement of this song for solo voice and piano, marked it Allegretto (moderately quick). The more traditional four-part harmonization sung on Sunday, although pretty, was practically funereal in character.
To be sure, the group has lost none of the pure intonation and precise diction, rhythm, and ensemble that have marked its performances from the beginning. But even Francesco Landini’s fourteenth-century ballata “Echo la primavera,” whose refrain has some catchy rhythms typical of this virtuoso late-Medieval Italian genre, would have needed more speed to invoke the “dance-like gestures” mentioned in the notes. The booklet duly reported that Hildegard’s chants are sometimes remarkably ornate, requiring virtuoso singers. But the two relatively brief examples chosen for this concert did not really bear out this side of her work.
I also was not entirely convinced by the approach taken to the ornate upper line of the twelfth-century Spanish or Aquitanian verse “Gratulantes celebremus festum.” This was sung in a way that was perhaps meant to sound like North-African or Andalusian folk singing. The result, however, struck me as harsh, reminiscent of the so-called open-throated technique made famous a while ago by The Bulgarian Women’s Choir.
These, however, are minor complaints. Perhaps because of the brevity of most of the Medieval selections and the fundamental similarity in sound of so many of them, no one item stood out as particularly striking in a program of many well-sung pieces. I certainly enjoyed the thirteenth-century three-voice French Christmas conductus “Nicholai presulis,” although what the booklet meant in describing it as “quirky” was unclear to me — perhaps referring to a few mildly crunchy dissonances and a long melisma on “Nunc” (“now”). Two or three decades ago the mention of instruments in the last two lines of the poem probably would have elicited some sort of orchestration from most medieval specialists. It is a mark of how far early music has come that no one misses instruments when the singing is as clear and assured as this.
As this was the first concert of this type to take place in the Calderwood hall, a word about the sound is in order. David Griesinger has just written a close-to-rave review of the hall itself for this publication here. His report, however, seems to have been on the basis of hearing a rehearsal by a large instrumental chamber group playing new music. I had no difficulty hearing one to four unaccompanied voices singing mostly quiet medieval songs. But this may have been because I was only about 20 feet away from them, in a corner of the ground floor that was reserved for the press.
Because the hall was nearly full for Sunday’s performance and there was no intermission, I didn’t have the opportunity to try out the sound in other locations. It was certainly dry, although not unpleasantly so. There was, perhaps, a certain historical aptness in the placement of the performers at the center of what was essentially an enclosed rectangular court. But only a fraction of this music is likely to have been originally performed in courtyards, and I would not have been happy to have been seated behind the four singers (who faced in my direction the entire time).
Although never histrionic, Anonymous 4’s singing is enriched by gesture, which has to be seen. Probably none of their music was meant to sound as if emanating from disembodied voices, however much one might like that romantic concept. Most of this program involved music whose poetry tells stories, whether in Latin, French, English, or Irish. One misses something of its conversational or presentational character if one cannot see the singers breathing and forming the sounds orally. I wonder, too, how much the hall’s ambience (or lack thereof) contributed to my sense of sonic sameness. Perhaps the inflections of dynamics and color that barely registered for me would have been easier to make out in a more conventionally resonant hall. Surely it will be advisable to consider adjusting the hall’s acoustic as it sees further offerings of various types.