The a cappella women’s quartet Anonymous 4 has been weaving its spells since 1986, and it has decided that 30 years is going to be enough. Its final CD, a collection of Civil War-era popular songs performed in tandem with folk musician Bruce Molsky, is to be released this January. And although the group will concertize through the 2015-2016 season, its recital on Dec. 9 at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, sponsored by Performance Santa Fe, marked its final appearance in this city. Having performed here on a handful of occasions through the years, the foursome has built up quite a following, such that a long line of the hopeful stood at the ready in case any tickets for the sold-out event might be turned in at the last minute.
Attendees were treated to a trifecta of what these musicians do best: medieval music from England on a distaff topic — in this case, medieval English Christmas music that largely involved texts about the Virgin Mary. The program, titled On Yoolis Night, was the live version of the group’s album of the same name, which was released in 1993, although with the repertoire slightly adapted and the pieces reordered. That was the musicians’ second album — the first, the year before, had also consisted of English medieval pieces — and at the time the idea that an unaccompanied women’s ensemble could earn a living singing such material fell somewhere between implausible and preposterous. But here they are, some 20 albums later, having sold two million CDs and enchanted audiences throughout the world. They did this by respecting their material absolutely, investing it with maximum scholarship and minimum cuteness, assembling their material into modestly scaled programs that allow for a degree of variety, and performing it in a technically impeccable style bathed in vocal purity. Three of the four singers are founding members, and the fourth has been part of the group for 16 years. Their timbre is not quite as fresh as it was a couple of decades back, but their restrained sound has stayed remarkably consistent nonetheless and it remains beautiful. Their sense of ensemble is so natural that they even seemed to roll their r’s in sync, and their interaction everywhere displayed a subtlety we might associate with the finest string quartets.
Three of the members — Marsha Genensky, Ruth Cunningham, and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, but not Susan Hellauer — offered solo numbers, in each case putting across their songs with appealing timbre and an elegant sense of narration. The ensemble pieces sometimes proved mesmerizing. In the 14th-century song “Gabriel, fram heven-king,” a Middle English translation of a piece sung in Latin by a character in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the chaste tone and lilting rhythms transported listeners to a distant, gentle refuge. In the conductus “Ave Maria salus hominum,” the short-long rhythms of the third metric mode of the Middle Ages lent a more bracing atmosphere, but even there the foursome preserved its suave demeanor. In the harmonically scaled-down context of medieval polyphony, even a three-part texture can seem surprisingly rich, and four singers at once an astonishment. This is a quiet quartet, never forcing tone to make an effect. One could not overlook that the large audience responded in kind, maintaining an attentive stillness that never overtakes listeners who are less than captivated.
— James M. Keller