Sunday, 29 June 2014

Marie et Marion

Marie et Marion
Marie et Marion; Anonymous 4; Harmonia Mundi
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 20 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Most recent disc from the a cappella quartet explores the sacred/secular dichotomy in the Montpellier Codex

On this new disc from Anonymous 4 (Ruth Cunningham, Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Jacquelin Horner-Kwiatek) on Harmonia Mundi returns to the Montpellier Codex. The codex was collected in Paris around 1300 in is one of the richest sources of French 13th century polyphony. For this disc, the group explore the dual themes of courtly/pastoral love and ardour and praise for Mary, the two often getting intertwined as in the final piece on the disc, Plus bele que flor in which the four part piece mixes different varieties of courtly love but the top voice reveals at the end that the object of the singer's love is the Virgin Mary.

A page from the Montpellier Codex
A page from the Montpellier Codex
The motets on the disc are a glorious mixtures, varying from the double motet in which the two upper voices have different texts, to triple motets which have three different texts; Plus bele que flor is a triple motet. Generally the works on the disc are either sacred or secular with none mixing things up quite like the final motet. But stylistically there is a lot of cross pollination as bits of trouvere songs and other secular songs find their way into motets, and some motets do very much resemble French chansons. Clearly the original performers were not too worried, particularly as in both the music and poetry of the age the sacred longing and desire for the Virgin Mary moved easily between secular and sacred.

What I love about these pieces is the clarity of the textures, despite the apparent complications of their multiple texts and rhythms, with different parts moving at different speeds. Anonymous 4 perform with a radiance and clarity which brings the music alive, and the performers are nicely alive to the various details in the music.

Anonymous 4 makes a characterful and beautifully focussed sound. Their overall timbre is highly attractive, but very firm in its core which is ideal for this sort of music. The four voice blend, but also have clearly differentiated characteristics. The whole is highly fluent and fluid, with quite a degree of surface sophistication but a great deal happening underneath too. There is quite a lot of virtuosic singing here, all done in the service of the music so that whilst not showy, there are some impressive moments. They are just as adept at blending together to sing a single unison line. The disc blends fine singing with good scholarship.

The CD booklet includes and introduction to the music from Marsha Genensky, and full texts and translations.

Anonymous 4 has now made over 20 albums and admirers will be happy to buy this disc on the group's reputation alone. But others will not be disappointed, they have discovered the secret of keeping their performances fresh and involving so that this disc is almost as exciting to listen to as their first. Along with this, is the intriguing premise of the programme with its mixture of sacred and secular. And of course, some stunning music.
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