When four female singers gathered in New York in 1986 for informal readings of a cappella Medieval chant, little could they have envisioned a three-decade career brimming with countless performances around the globe and 20 recordings with 20 million copies sold.
An impressively large crowd gathered to hear Anonymous 4 Sunday in Hyde Park, grateful to be chosen as the locale for their last local touring date, in the University of Chicago Presents series.
No doubt many of their devoted fans in the gargantuan Rockefeller Chapel hoped that the quartet would reconsider its decision to disband. But with other projects in the pipeline for each member, it appears that the end has indeed come, even if a similar and ultimately premature pronouncement was made in 2004. If the near-perfection of their vocal purity has frayed a bit since their early days, they easily held listeners in rapt attention throughout the 70-minute program.
Their fans have trusted that through scholarship and seriousness of purpose the singers arrived at interpretations that faithfully reflect the norms in the eras of their composition. And since their realizations favor purity and austerity over showmanship and sizzle, the narrow range of expression and dearth of ornamentation (unlike their early music compatriots in instrumental music) seemed to signify reverence for their sources. But since early music notation gives virtually no interpretive clues, these conclusions are at best educated, but credible, guesses.
It’s likely that the popularity of their music reflected a rebellion of modern audiences against the excesses of modern vocal interpretation in all genres, classical or popular. Anonymous 4 struck a chord as much for what was absent than what was sung. The composers of most of their music are unknown, they limited their personnel to a bare minimum, and they studiously shunned accompaniment and amplification.
Titled “The Last Noel: Songs & Carols for Christmas,” this program served as a retrospective of past examinations of English language holiday-themed works from the 13th century forward. (Translations were needed to wade through now-obscure variants of the mother tongue.) The chapel’s lush, reverberant acoustics propelled the music to every corner and crevice, though consonants suffered a bit during the journey.
Gaude, virgo, salutate (Rejoice, virgin) opened the program with the kind of pristine unison singing that has served as a benchmark for other vocal ensembles. The theme of reverence for the Virgin Mary continued with Edi beo hevene quene (Blessed be thou, Queen of Heaven), presented in four verses with simple, close harmonies.
Balaam de quo vaticinans (Prophesying him, Balaam said…) began with soothing wordless vowels before delivering a thumbnail sketch of the three Magi and their precious gifts. Peperit virgo (A maiden gave birth) further expounded on Mary and the three kings with an effortlessly transparent unison. Here the chapel seemed like a fifth voice, the vocalists timing their leisurely phrasing to coincide with the seemingly endless sonic decay.
For a group renowned for their uncanny tonal blending and egalitarian balance, one identifies with the whole more than the parts. Occasional forays into trios and solos added welcome variety and a chance to appreciate individual singers. Sainte Nicholas, Godes druth (Saint Nicholas, God’s beloved) was presented as a trio, with some key syllables neatly isolated for comic effect. A highlight was Ruth Cunningham’s supple solo reading of Lullaby my Child, a prayer for sleep for the child Jesus under desperate conditions.
As tasty as the performance was, the odd excursion into contemporary music would have cleansed the palate, even at the risk of weakening the recital’s thematic links. Their recording of music by David Lang last year (“Love Fail”) was a highlight of their career, and made many wish that they had dipped theirs toes in similar waters more often.
The lone encore was an appropriately brief and bittersweet incantation of “Ite, Missa Est”, the concluding number in the Latin mass, and a dismissal of a devoted audience not quite ready to say goodbye.
Published by the Chicago Classical Review.