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The Cherry Tree: Songs, Carols & Ballads for Christmas
10 Oct 2010

Anonymous 4: The Cherry Tree

In the popular view, the modern celebration of Christmas seems to have begun with Charles Dickens’s revivifying A Christmas Carol (1843).

The Cherry Tree: Songs, Carols & Ballads for Christmas

Anonymous 4

Harmonia Mundi HMU 807453 [SACD]

$14.99  Click to buy

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 fruit.

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

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