double play; The Lily and the Lamb; Anonymous 4 (Harmonia Mundi CD HMU 907125)
Friday 08 September 1995
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.
Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boymusic
Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Tidal launch: The most pretentious lines from Alicia Keys' valedictory speech
- 2 Trevor Noah: Jon Stewart's replacement faces online criticism over 'anti-Semitic' tweets
- 3 Martha Stewart accuses Snoop Dogg of 'smoking for four hours' during Justin Bieber Roast
- 4 Gamers confess the worst things they've done in The Sims
- 5 Syrian child photographed 'surrendering to camera because she thought it was a gun'
Tidal launch: The most pretentious lines from Alicia Keys' valedictory speech
Tidal: Jay Z's Spotify rival streaming service criticised for making wealthy artists even richer
Top Gear live to go ahead: Jeremy Clarkson to join Richard Hammond and James May... just don't call it Top Gear
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
Menstruation-themed photo series artist 'censored by Instagram' says images are to demystify taboos around periods
Ukip supporters are 55 or older, white and socially conservative, finds British Social Attitudes Report
Street preacher quoting from the Bible fined for calling homosexuality an 'abomination'
Woman filmed launching racist tirade against men on the Tube for speaking in 'own lingo'
The West has it totally wrong on Lee Kuan Yew
David Cameron calls Labour 'hopeless, sneering socialists' while announcing 7-day NHS plans
Revealed: Putin's army of pro-Kremlin bloggers