Anonymous 4: The Cherry Tree

However, from a musical standpoint, the rich repertory of fifteenth-century
English carols requires that we look much further back to uncover the
historical roots of much of our modern Yuletide singing. And this collection by
the superb vocal quartet, “Anonymous 4,” who now approach a quarter
century of inspired music-making, makes uncovering those roots a particularly
congenial task.

The fifteenth-century English carol was diverse in its subject matter: the
expected Christmas texts co-exist with carols commemorating the Passion of
Jesus, for instance, or the military victory at Agincourt. But it is the tie to
Christmas that has endured. This idea of continuity helps to shape Anonymous
4’s program, as they place Anglo-American folk hymns and early American
tunes in counterpoint with the early English carols, a programmatic touch that
allows the ear a measure of “intertextuality”—hearing one
thing with at least a contextual reference to another. It is a dynamic approach
whose variety helps to keep the ear sharp, the mind open to new connections,
and also one that draws on the expansion of Anonymous 4’s repertory in
recent years. Though best known for their work in late medieval music, with the
recording of “American Angels” (HMU 907326 [2004]) and
“Gloryland” (HMU 907400 [2006]), they added traditional American
music to their musical array, and The Cherry Tree handily bears that

The fifteenth-century ensemble carols combine refrains and more thinly
scored verses in a fluid rhythmic style, sparked by the lilt of cross rhythms
and graced with the new consonant sounds of Renaissance harmony. The singing
here is free and vibrant, but with a compelling edge to the sound that keeps
things well in focus. The middle-English pronunciation contributes much to the
color of the sound, as well. The Anglo-American music adopts a different sound,
marked by the ornamental “scooped” inflections of traditional
singing, inflections that Marsha Genensky renders with particular naturalness
and command in her solo version of the “The Cherry Tree Carol.” As
the period pronunciation adds such distinction to the early carols, one might
wonder if a richer early-American palette might have been used to similarly
good effect here. Certainly the singers were mindful of the issue: the American
songs are pronounced with a discernible looseness that is surely intentional,
as are the lengthened “r’s” and the occasionally richer
diphthongs. But in the end, a less conservative approach might have offered a
more colorful effect.

Each of the four singers has a solo track, and the opportunity to hear the
four individually is one to savor. Ruth Cunningham’s wonderfully
contoured notes, Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek’s exquisite control and warm
tone, Susan Hellauer’s intimate clarity of sound, and Marsha
Genensky’s impressive command of idiom remind that although the ensemble
is perhaps an entity greater than the sum of its component parts, those
component parts are stunning in their range of gift. In this particular case, a
Christmas gift that we should not wait to unwrap.

Steven Plank

image_description=The Cherry Tree: Songs, Carols & Ballads for Christmas
product_title=The Cherry Tree: Songs, Carols & Ballads for Christmas
product_by=Anonymous 4
product_id=Harmonia Mundi HMU 807453 [SACD]