Anonymous 4's The Cherry Tree

Free Download! Anonymous 4 performing the folk hymn "Shepherd's Star"

Sunday, December 05, 2010

The four female vocalists of Anonymous 4 are known for popularizing medieval music with their pure, unadorned style of singing. In their Christmas programs -- of which they have made several -- this approach represents a departure from the grandeur of the season. Their latest album, The Cherry Tree, is a case in point: it brings together 15th-century English carols with four early American hymns for the holiday season. It’s our Album of the Week.

The "Cherry Tree Carol" is familiar to fans of American folk music, having been recorded by Joan Baez, Emmylou Harris and other artists. A 15th-century miracle ballad of Joseph and Mary, it is one of several selections that the English imported to the U.S., and it is performed here in an arrangement from a 1917 Kentucky hymnal. Other early American songs are taken from the 1835 collection Southern Harmony, including the traditional "The Shepherd's Star," William Knapp's "A Virgin Unspotted,” and William Billings' four-part fuging tune "Bethlehem."

Mostly, however, the carols Anonymous 4 sings are 15th-century English airs with texts in Middle English ("Noel syng we bothe al and som") or Latin ("Veni Redemptor Gencium"). As one has come to expect from Anonymous 4 over the past quarter century, their performances are carefully shaped, with subtle dynamic nuances and a sparing use of vibrato. What's more, the album is sequenced in a way that creates a counterpoint between the English polyphony and American hymns that is constantly engaging.

Watch this video of "Nowel Syng We Bothe Al And Som" and tell us what you think: Do you prefer holiday music to be "simple" and unadorned? Or dressed up in grand, festive arrangements?

The Cherry Tree
Anonymous 4
Harmonia Mundi
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Comments [9]

Kenneth Bennett Lane

CHRISTMAS CAROLS are in a sense enjoyable for their melodies, their sense of hope for the future, their warmth of expression, their "sympatico" "gemuetlichkeit" aura, and their familiarity, good if well-performed and scorned if poorly performed or too often performed Nowadays, there's music and entertainment everywhere, available in so many formats and venues that one is not starved for lack of options. Records, audio and video, complement the options, often in far better performance standards than current live performers and productions. Live performance is often more memorable and interactive, certainly more than "canned" performances.

Dec. 09 2010 04:29 PM
whitney keen from Tenafly, NJ

When I was in school, we sang a great many medieval carols and motets, and they remain my favorites, followed by Appalachian and Elizabethan folk melodies, then traditional carols from all over the world. Some sound good with choir and orchestra, but the medieval carols were almost always unaccompanied and when well sung (like Anonymous 4) have a linear character that floats in the air. When you sing them, the group can breathe is such a way that it appears that no one takes a breath at all.

Dec. 08 2010 09:58 PM
maddy from new york city

Some of these songs already have traditional harmonies. The ancient song
Nowel Syng We Bothe Al and Som is one such and Anonymous 4 do it with clarity and grace. On the other hand, the arrangement of Shepherd's Star (better known as Brightest and Best) sounded to me inappropriate to the song and its southern Appalachian sources.

Dec. 08 2010 08:51 PM
Patricia from Harlingen, Texas USA

I absolutely prefer the simple, unadorned carols. Coming from a Polish family, I learned the Polish carols very early. For me, carols are the expression of the common people about Christmas. You might know that "Infant Lowly" is a translation of a Polish carol. I sing in a country gospel group and for Christmas I select for solos carols like "Lift your torches, Jeanette Isabella" and "O Come Little Children."

Dec. 08 2010 08:15 PM
Mark Thompson from New York

I like the comment of Michael Meltzer above. But in general, with a few exceptions such as the Messiah, I am most drawn to the unadorned choral work.

Dec. 06 2010 01:58 PM
Susan from Montauk

I happily listen to the Anonymous Four and music like theirs for hours. I also love Bach's Christmas Oratorio, and grand holiday music. All that timpani & brass and glorious choral singing. Why should I have to choose?

Dec. 06 2010 11:00 AM
Roger from Staten Island

I don't know... I do like the sound of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir or the old Ormandy/Philadelphia Christmas albums from the 60s and 70s. The sound of these women leaves me a little cold. They're no doubt talented at certain things but give me a big, lush choir any day.

Dec. 06 2010 07:58 AM
Gev Sweeney from Ocean Grove, New Jersey

Oh, I much prefer unadorned Christmas music! Have been filled to the blowholes with bombastic stuff. I see no reason to make Stille Nacht sound as though it's being performed by three football fields worth of megachurch choirs.Small and simple is best.

Dec. 06 2010 07:32 AM
Michael Meltzer

There is such a thing as musical intelligence and the answer to your question lies in the application thereof, with appropriate discretion. Form will then follow content.
There are carols like "Joy to the World" that beg for large forces plus trumpets, drums, bells and whistles. There are carols like "Coventry Carol" that are quite the opposite. There are many that are judgment calls, which will stand or fall on the skill and good taste of the arranger as his or her choice is executed.
I complain all year about how you select pieces in transcription. It's the same story, content dictates what works and what doesn't. Good taste must apply, case by case. There is no general rule that can be applied across the board.

Dec. 06 2010 07:24 AM

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The Albums of the Week are compelling new recordings that we spotlight every week. These include creative repertoire choices, engaging musical personalities and artistic statements that stand out from the pack. You can hear the Albums of the Week throughout the day and evening on WQXR.