Anonymous 4's The Cherry Tree

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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
Available at Arkivmusic.com