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May 19, 2004



For its final performance in New York, the ethereal vocal quartet Anonymous 4 returned to basics, presenting a program of the spare, uncompromising 12th century chant of Hildegard of Bingen at Corpus Christi Church Sunday evening. In a way, it was a surprising move for the a cappella foursome. Having been at the forefront of the early-music scene for the past 17 years, the group has performed and recorded Hildegard before, but recent seasons have seen it branch out into Americana, Christmas music, even some contemporary fare.

Retreating to Hildegard might seem like a commercial ploy, since the curious abbess' fame as a writer, healer, mystic and composer has, in the past two decades, surpassed the bounds of classical music stardom into New Age, feminist and pop culture circles. Turns out that a program devoted to Hildegard's music places subtle yet daunting demands on the performers and the audience. Clad in conservative black dresses, the four singers sang the chants devoutly, passionately and with an exceptionally pure tone. As is often the case for this period music, all four sang in unison, which, among other consequences, placed a microscope on even minute technical blemishes.

Anonymous 4 showed few signs of the exceptional difficulty of this enterprise. A stray note here and there aside, the technical prowess of the performers was as impressive as the sincerity with which they invested each word. Always thinking programmatically, they divided the evening into a series of "visions," interspersing Hildegard's music with her writings, which they have retroactively set to music. They performed without applause and without intermission, the effect being a continuous consideration of Hildegard's advanced, colorful poetry.

As for the music, truth be told, it is purposefully uniform. As the erudite program notes point out, it was vainglorious in this time to be identified as a composer, and if the music stood out too much and distracted from the interpretation of the words, the composer had overstepped her bounds. That's not to say that Hildegard wasn't innovative; her melismas (melodic elaborations on a syllable), for example, are unconventional, and numerous theorists have written about her unique compositional style.

Still, the lasting impression from this aural experience is one of sonic distillation, of concentrating, even meditating on a single pitch. The effect is similar to that of the "holy" minimalist compositions of Arvo Pärt and Sir John Tavener, the latter of whom Anonymous 4 has collaborated with before. Despite the fact that the compositions involve text, a concert of Hildegard is a kind of absolute music. In that way, it was a fitting tribute to a group that has done much so much for the art form. Two encores of Americana (including a stunning "Wondrous Love") and a champagne reception followed. Anonymous 4 is disbanding soon, but with yet another CD due out, its work will not fade into anonymity.

Posted by acapnews at May 19, 2004 7:55 AM


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