In this week's Full Rotation: Album of the Week, the medieval soul sisters Anonymous 4 travel through Four Centuries of Chant.
When Anonymous 4 came along in 1986, medieval chant was something known only to specialists and music majors slogging through the required music-history survey course. Even their name suggested esoteric scholarship: it was taken from the manuscripts of a medieval musicologist known to scholars only as -- yes, "Anonymous 4."
Yet they’ve remained anything but anonymous. After their debut recording, An English Ladymass, rose to the top of Billboard’s classical charts in 1993 they have sold over a million copies of their albums encompassing not only plainchant but also 19th-century American gospel hymns, folk songs and contemporary music. The quartet broke up in 2004, but its members have since reunited for a series of concerts and to put together this “greatest hits” collection of chant from the 12th to the 16th centuries.
Four Centuries of Chant shows that much of this music is incredibly dramatic but not in the way that contemporary ears hear drama. Take the opening of The Lily & the Lamb, a sequence of sung and spoken texts, built around descriptions of the Virgin Mary's agony at the death of Jesus. There's a dark cast to the melodies that depict scenes of crucifixion and martyrdom. Or consider the hymn from A Mass for the End of Time, a vivid recitation of the horrors of the last judgment.
There are also some very complicated vocal textures here, as in three selections from The Miracles of Sant'Iago, based on a 12th century manuscript containing sermons, chants and stories of St. James. Other highlights include the great hymn of thanksgiving, the Te Deum, in a vernacular version from Medieval Hungary and two captivating chants by the medieval visionary, Hildegard von Bingen. Throughout, Anonymous 4 present this material with crystalline, finely meshed singing.
Four Centuries of Chant
Harmonia Mundi HMX2907546
Hear Anonymous 4 perform live on WNYC's Soundcheck, Thursday, Dec. 17