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La bele Marie Conduits et chansons de l’Ars Antiqua
O maria o felix puerpera [3:39]
Pia mater gratie [2:45]
De la mere au sauveor [4:08]
O maria virginei [4:13]
Verbum bonum et suave [3:59]
Ave salus hominum [3:26]
Mainte chanšon ai gait [4:45]
Ave maria gracia plena [2:41]
PEROTIN [fl. c. 1200]
Beata viscera [6:20]
Mundum renovavit [2:54]
Je te pri de cuer par amors [4:10]
Salve sancta parens [3:12]
Serena virginum [3:44]
De la tres douce Marie [4:13]
Ave virgo virginum [3:05]
Mater patris et filia [4:37]
Ave nobilis venerabilis [3:48]
Anonymous 4 (Marsha Genensky Susan Hellauer, Jacqueline Horner, Johanna |Maria Rose).
rec 10-14 September 2001, Christian Brothers Retreat and Conference Centre, Napa, California
Texts and translations included
HARMONIA MUNDI HMG507312 [66:40]

The success of Anonymous 4 was one of the most remarkable phenomena in the classical music world during the last quarter of a century. That a four-woman a capella vocal group which largely specialised in medieval music should have issued a series of CDs which sold exceptionally well and toured to full houses is, to put it mildly, surprising. That they did so without pandering to commercial interests (these were no ‘mediaeval baebes’) makes it even more remarkable. Anonymous 4 first came to general attention in 1993, when their first CD, An English Ladymas, was issued by Harmonia Mundia, the label with which they were thereafter associated almost exclusively. The four singers back in 1992/3 were Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Johanna Maria Rose and Ruth Cunningham. The last of these left the group in 1998 and was replaced by Jacqueline Horner and when Cunningham returned in 2007 it was in place of Rose. Their ‘sound’ has always been strikingly beautiful, both in blend and in terms of individual voices. Their approach was thoroughly grounded in careful scholarship, Susan Hellauer taking on the chief responsibility for this aspect of their work. After a slowing down of activities between 2004 and 2013, Anonymous 4 returned to full-time activity, before announcing their retirement at the end of 2015, giving a final ‘Christmas Concert’ in the Medieval Sculpture Hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (see review).

La bele Marie, a recital of 13th century French conductus and chants dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary is amongst the loveliest of the group’s recordings and well merits this reissue - it was originally issued in 2002 (later their style gradually became more and more mannered, and even here there are the beginnings of a tendency to subordinate differences between individual works to ‘their sound’). It also has, in a less than explicit fashion, a particularly direct connection with the name under which the group chose to perform. The name ‘Anonymous 4’ unmistakably alludes to ‘Anonymous IV’ the name given by scholars to a late 13th century English writer on music (fl. 1250-1280), who clearly spent some years in Paris. He wrote a treatise, De mensuris et discantu, which is one of the most important sources of information (along with the De mensurabili musica of Johannes de Garlandia) on the music of Paris in the Thirteenth Century. Indeed it is largely thanks to this text by ‘Anonymous IV’ that we know about the significance of Magister Perotin and can confidently attribute some specific works to him (one of which graces this CD). This is his monophonic conductus ‘Beata viscera’, which sets (but see below) a poem by the philosopher and poet known as Philippe the Chancellor (who was made Chancellor of Notre Dame in 1217). Having praised the scholarship of Anonymous 4 along with their resistance to the pressures of commercialisation, it is only just to report that where ‘Beata viscera’ is concerned, they recorded only 3 of its seven verses because, as Susan Hellauer puts it, the others “contain references to the Jews that are unflattering to say the very least”. Omitting these verses, even if the omission is signalled thus, avoids the recognition that medieval attitudes were very different to ours, and deliberately obscures an historical truth. Refusing to bow to commercialism wasn’t matched by a similar refusal to bow to political correctness, evidently. It would surely have been enough to sing the offending verses while retaining a note disassociating Anonymous 4 from the sentiments expressed therein? Without the offending stanzas, the balance of the poem is lost. In purely musical terms, the song is a delight, the melisma on the opening ‘O’ of its refrain (“O mira novitas et novum gaudium / matris integritas post puerperium) beautifully conveying the sense of wonder in the poet’s words.

Indeed there is generally little to complain about musically. There is much luminous singing, and one’s pleasure in it soon makes one forget that this music would never have been sung by women in its own time. The unexpected harmonies in, for example, ‘Mundum renovavit’ are a delight and even the sung texts are often fascinating in their own right. Having for many years taught undergraduate classes on Medieval English poetry, I have met many images for the Virgin Mary (such as ‘a lily among thorns’, or ‘the star of the sea’); but there are some unfamiliar and striking ones here. The Virgin is “Joseph’s ears of corn” and “Solomon’s ivory throne”; she is an “aromatic smoking branch”, the “mistress of the angels” and “our music-maker”. In imagery such as this lies a key to one of the most characteristic features of the mediaeval imagination, its use of typology to link events and characters in the New Testament with those in the Old Testament, or with the living world of mediaeval men and women. Poetically the results can be gloriously beautiful, a beauty here enhanced by a deal of lovely music and much fine music.

Not, then, a perfect CD. But if you are an admirer of Anonymous 4 but somehow never acquired this particular disc, don’t miss the chance to do so now. Or, indeed, if you are too young to have heard this music when first issued, do please try to hear it (and purchase it?) now.

Glyn Pursglove