Anonymous 4 juxtaposes love and devotion in ethereal program

Sat Apr 05, 2014 at 1:07 am

By Dennis Polkow

Anonymous 4 performed Friday night at Rockefeller Chapel for the University of Chicago Presents series.

Anonymous 4 presented “Marie et Marion,” a program based on the Montpellier Codex, Friday night at Rockefeller Chapel. The ensemble’s Harmonia Mundi recording of this same music will be released Tuesday.

Much as the all-female a cappella group had done for its best-selling album “Love’s Illusion” twenty years ago, the source material for “Marie et Marion” is based on the same Montpellier Codex, the most extant single source of 13th century French polyphony.

Whereas the material gathered for “Love’s Illusion” had concentrated on courtly love, the material for “Marie et Marion” is based around an unusual motet that was performed as the climax of the evening—what seems at first to be secular love gives way to a surprise object of love and desire, that of the Virgin Mary.

With that motet as a springboard, the rest of the program explored the juxtaposition of motets expressing the object of secular courtly love with those devoted to Mary, object of sacred devotional love.

The 65-minute program proceeded without intermission, some thirty 13th-century a cappella vocal pieces presented one right after the other in one giant clump.

Given the large size and swimmy acoustics of the venue, the group’s low dynamic level and sameness of approach, its emphasis on beautiful sound (i.e., the sustaining of vowels and swallowing of consonants)—and a program that made it difficult to discern when one piece ended and another began—audience members seeking to follow along had a daunting task.

Many gave up and simply took it in as an enveloping sonic experience, which has always been a huge part of the appeal of Anonymous 4. The four women certainly sound like no other group out there and its usually ethereal sound was abstractly magnified by the vastness of the space.

One fascinating element was that a series of solo chansons were interwoven throughout the evening, which not only allowed each of the superb singers to be appreciated and savored individually, but also gave a deconstruction of the separate elements that make up the group’s unique ensemble sound and blend.

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