The Cherry Tree
Having sold 2 million copies of their 20 albums, there’s nothing anonymous about this vocal ensemble comprised of Ruth Cunningham, Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek. Anonymous 4’s popularity can be attributed to continuous glowing reviews of its live performances, albums, programs, and ethereal voices that blend seamlessly. Similar to Bulgarian women’s choirs, Anonymous 4 transports its listeners to other realms but with its repertoire of European and American early music—sung a cappella.
The Cherry Tree features Christian ballads, hymns, carols, and songs from England, Ireland and America. This doesn’t surprise me since Anonymous 4 introduced early Americana music on its album American Angel which was released several years ago. After that album, the ensemble mysteriously broke up, only to reunite with the release of a greatest hits album, Four Centuries of Chant in 2009. What impresses me the most about these vocalists is that they sing in several languages with perfect intonation and even with the Appalachian fare the vocalists provide the necessary vocal inflections and nuances. When you hear Marsha Genensky sing the Appalachian version of The Cherry Tree, you would swear that she was raised in Appalachia America.
The album's title gives the impression of a collection of songs dealing with the seasons spring and summer, but in fact the collection of songs reflect on the Christmas story starting with Archangel Gabriel’s visitation with the Virgin Mary to the end of Christ’s life, but mostly the songs revolve around Mary and the nativity scene. The folk hymns, carols, songs, and ballads mostly hail from the 14th and 15th centuries (England and Ireland) with a few American pieces from the 18th and 19th centuries. The liner notes provide text and context of the program.
The overall album could be called a gem, but a few pieces stand out, including the Appalachian The Cherry Tree with its monophonic structure and lilting vocals. The 15th century English carol Nowel sing we both all and some features all 4 vocalists singing in perfectly calibrated harmony. The English carol The Virgin Unspotted also features gorgeous 4-part harmony. The 15th century polyphonic carol Hail Mary Full of Grace literally stopped me in my tracks with its ethereal vocals and the American fugue Bethlehem closes the album on a satisfying note. Still, you might feel tempted to press the replay button and listen to the entire program.