United States The Last Noel, Songs & Carols for Christmas: Anonymous 4, Church of the Holy Trinity, Philadelphia, 11.12.2015 (BJ)
A highly valued stretch of cultural history came to an end with this Philadelphia Chamber Music Society concert. Since making its PCMS debut in 1998, Anonymous 4 has been a popular feature in the Society’s annual schedule, but the group’s members have announced that the 2015/16 season is its last.
If you are in full possession of your powers, and if you love what you are doing as passionately as these four gifted ladies plainly do, it must be hard to step away from the concert stage. I remember that they made a similar announcement fully eleven years ago, but then carried on regardless (recalling Adelina Patti’s propensity for repeated “farewell” tours). But this time, it seems, the group’s decision to retire is firm.
It is, therefore, the right moment to pay tribute and offer thanks to Ruth Cunningham, Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek for all the pleasure, enlightenment, and entertainment they have given us in the course of a hectically busy 30-year association. It is a musicological fact that the medieval music at the center of their repertoire could never have sounded this way in the centuries before it was ever sung by women. But this seems like a purely exterior irrelevance, when set aside the meticulous scholarship they have brought to what may be called the archeological side of their work, the combined polish and expressive intensity of their singing, and the irresistible charm with which they seem veritably to embrace their public.
This final Philadelphia appearance was up to Anonymous 4’s familiar standards in every respect. Most of the pieces on the program (which I do not think it would be useful to list) were, appropriately enough, anonymous, being drawn from the treasure-house of carols, hymns, motets, sequences, and conductus—riches to which they have opened up many previously unsuspecting listeners’ ears.
The exceptions came in their concluding group, which included the fuging tune Rainbow of 1785 by Timothy Swan, and ended with two pieces, the carol Judea and the fuging tune Bethlehem, by the outstanding American composer of the late 18th century, William Billings. These made a perfect way to celebrate, and at the same time to underline with regret, what Anonymous 4 has meant over the years, and what in future we shall only be able to enjoy through recordings—of which, happily, there are many.