Chant-euses ex­traor­di­naires

Pasatiempo - - Pasa Tempos -

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

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