double play; The Lily and the Lamb; Anonymous 4 (Harmonia Mundi CD HMU 907125)

Back to the future, or onwards to the past? What is it about these distant voices that has so captured the public imagination? Is it simply that distance lends enchantment: I hear music and there's no one there? Do we perhaps need to be reminded of just how far we have journeyed from the heart of the matter? Do we now crave simpler truths, a purity of utterance long since lost in the complexities of the modern age? Or are we talking some kind of stress-related therapy, the latest in a long line of auditory sedatives? The cynic in me fears that might indeed be the case, that the massive record sales clocked up in this area since Hildegard of Bingen became the patron saint of Hyperion Records amounts to little more than the need for a soothing muzak for fevered brows. Let's assume that there is more to it than that.

The four women who make up Anonymous 4 have topped the classical charts with each of their albums to date. As a non-specialist in the field, the first thing I can relate to is the extraordinary blend, the oneness, of their voices. Plus an opulence, a sensuality about their chanting which I imagine draws a mixed response from early music scholars. But, pace the purists, the issue here is communication across the ages, and by introducing - even subliminally - a contemporary perspective into the style, the impact is surely stronger on modern ears.

The music on this disc all relates to Mary, the Holy Mother, and Jesus, her sacrificial lamb. It speaks directly from the heart to the heart, more often than not by way of a single melodic line. These monophonic "sequences" fix you with their purity. Some seem to exist in, and evolve from, nature, so organic are they. The longest demand a concentration way beyond that of more complex musics. Indeed, there comes a point where listening ceases to be listening at all, but rather a state of mind. The absolute certainty of the two-part harmony in Jesu Cristes milde moder can hold you in thrall right through to the extraordinary cadential release of its "Amen". But you must play your part in the ritual.

There are surprises: the hymn Pe milde lomb isprad o rode is quite out of its time, a florid, luxuriant entreaty, to which Anonymous 4 (in a heinous act of creative licence) add a drone. This comes in the moment when Jesus begins to speak from the cross, and the sudden impact of harmony where none previously exists is amazing. Here lies the crux of this music: that it comprises not one note more or less than is necessary for the expression, that harmony and embellishment really mean something, and that hearing it now, as the 20th century draws to a close, enables us to wipe the slate clean and take stock of our musical progress - or otherwise. I can think of no better purgative. And as if to prove the point, after almost an hour of monophony or, at most, two-part polyphony, the unexpected arrival of four-part motets (rare, we're told, in this era) is like opening one's ears to a whole new experience, so rich it almost hurts to listen.


Forget "authenticity". Despite their academic backgrounds, these four women make no claim to give us the music as it might have been heard. Medieval church music sung by women - not imitation super-choirboys - is a deeply inauthentic concept to start with. And the "sequence" here offered has nothing to do with the liturgy. Instead, Anonymous 4 seem to have a quietly feminist point to make. On the face of it, Christian theology has been exclusively, suffocatingly male. But through the idealisation of Mary, "Mother of God", "Queen of Heaven", something female has been smuggled back in.

Interesting, but what about the musical results? The balance of monody and polyphony for contrast's sake is very modern - and very welcome if you're going to listen to the disc right through. Anonymous 4 make a gorgeous sound, well-balanced and tonally firm, even when the writing takes the lower voices pretty low. They also phrase very musically - no romantic excess, but with an expressive rise and fall even in the simplest chants. And some of the music is very lovely. The contrast between two versions of the Stabat mater - Stabat iuxta Christi crucem and the vernacular and more immediate Stond wel, moder, under roode - is thought-provoking; as, in a different way, is the basing of the motet Veni mater gracie on a contemporary pop-song, "Dou way, Robin" (the medieval equivalent of "Stop yer tickling, Jock"). The Puritans have a lot to answer for.


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