Wednesday, September 2, 2009

In Review--Chant x 4

Anonymous 4
Four Centuries of Chant
Harmonia Mundi

The laws of synchronicity work efficiently in my life. Two weeks ago, I pulled out Anonymous 4’s Portrait because I was craving ethereal polyphonic chants. Then I received an e-mail release notice from Harmonia Mundi announcing a new Anonymous 4 recording. Four Centuries of Chant, though is a compilation archives monody or plainsong chants that appeared on previous albums. While this quartet is mostly known for its vocal polyphony, the 20 plainsong chants (which includes work by Hildegard von Bingen, Tavener, along with medieval, renaissance chants and Hungarian Christmas music), deserve attention.

These chants were culled from An English Ladymass, The Lily & The Lamb, Miracles of Sant’Iago, A Star in the East, Hildegard Von Bingen—11,000 Virgins, A Lammas Ladymass, The Legend of Nicholas, 1000: A Mass for the End of Time, Darkness into Light, and The Origins of Fire.

Susan Hellauer cited in the liner notes, “In 1986 when Anonymous 4 first began singing together in New York City, it was not common for vocal ensembles performing early repertoires to program chant or explore how to sing it. For us, however, it was clear that medieval plainchant was as artistically as important and esthetically rewarding as medieval polyphony.”

Anonymous 4 is not the only vocal ensemble, or even female vocal ensemble these days to perform plainchant. The Scandinavian Trio Mediaeval also performs plainsong chants along with polyphony. However, Anonymous 4 has made a name for itself among early music fans and also within the new age scene, for good reason. The Anonymous 4 women sing with bell-like clarity and listening to their repertoire feels like a sacred, if not, religious experience. The women also offer intriguing programs on their recordings.

Certainly, Four Centuries of Chant deserves to be in an early music collection. Similar to the clean lines of baroque music, Gregorian and plainchants offer a linear listening experience that is easy on the brain, ears and flows straight to the heart. These chants act as a backdrop for meditation and other spiritual practices, as a beautiful background for a relaxing moment with a cup of tea and act as a perfect balm at bedtime. I even enjoy waking up to these chants and starting my day on a high soprano note.

The Philadelphia Inquirer described this music as, “Aesthetic bliss and technical perfection.” And certainly this recording invites new listeners to the realm of plainsong chants and welcomes back those already in its throes of passion.

Harmonia Mundi

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