musica Dei donum
"The Cherry Tree - Songs, Carols and Ballads for Christmas"
rec: Feb 2009, Skywalker Sound, Marin County, Ca. & Nov 2009, Goshen College, Ind., Saunder Concert Hall
Harmonia mundi - HMU 807453 (© 2010) (58'40")
Alma redemptoris mater, carol (English, 15th C);
Hail mary ful of grace, carol (English, 15th C);
Lullay my child - This ender nithgt, ballad carol (English, 15th C);
Mervele noght Iosep, carol (English, 15th C);
Newell - Tydings trew, ballad carol (English, 15th C);
Now may we syngyn, carol (English, 15th C);
Nowell syng we bothe al and som, carol (English, 15th C);
Prophetarum presignata, prosa (Irish, 14th C);
Qui creavit celum, song (English, 15th C);
Salve mater misericordie, prosa (Irish, 14th C);
Star in the East, folk hymn (American, 1835) ;
Synge we to this mery cumpane, carol (English, 15th C);
The Cherry Tree Carol (English, 15th C, arr Kentucky, 1917);
The Shepherd's Star, folk hymn (American, 1835) ;
Veni redemptor gencium, carol (English, 15th C);
William BILLINGS (1746-1800):
Bethlehem, fuging tune;
William KNAPP (1698-1768), arr anon:
A Virgin Unspotted 
 Wyeth's Repository of Music, Part Second, 1813;
 The Southern Harmony, 1835)
Ruth Cunningham, Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, voice
From early times in the history of the Christian Church Christmas became the most popular feast in the ecclesiastical calender. It soon found its way into the popular culture, resulting in a large number of stories and songs, whose content often had nothing to do with the story of the birth of Jesus as told by the Evangelists. Some of the songs which belong to the most popular today go back to very ancient times.
This disc presents a number of pieces for Christmastide which date from the 14th and 15th centuries, but are often arrangements of existing material. They are English or Irish and either in English or in Latin, but sometimes in a mixture of the two. This is a well-known phenomenon in Christmas music. One of the most popular songs of all time, 'In dulci jubilo', also has a mixture of two languages, German and Latin.
Today the word carol is usually associated with Christmas, as there are so many hymns and songs described as 'Christmas carols', but in fact the term refers to the form of a song. In New Grove the carol is defined as "an English or Latin song of uniform stanzas beginning with a refrain called a 'burden' that is repeated after each stanza". It is in the carols that we find the mixture of two languages, for instance in Alma redemptoris mater. The Latin phrase is also the text of the refrain, whereas the stanzas are in English. Carols may be identical in form, the texture can strongly differ. Some are relatively simple and straigtforward, reflecting their popular origins, like Nowel syng we. Others are much more complicated, and close to the art song of the time, as Veni redemptor gencium.
The other category on this disc is the ballad or, as they are called here, the ballad carol. Its main feature is the narrative element. Newell - Tydings trew, for instance, tells about the meeting between the angel Gabriel and Mary, and the announcement of Jesus' birth, and Mary travelling to Elisabeth. Some of these ballads also have the structure of stanzas and a refrain. In this case the refrain is: "Newell Newell Newell Newell, This is the song of angel gabryel".
It may seem a little odd to include some American carols in this programme. In fact, it makes a lot of sense. Some carols were imported by English colonists, like The Cherry Tree Carol whose origins are in the 15th century, and is sung here in an arrangement from 1917, made in Kentucky. The other pieces are of a later date, but are sometimes reminiscent of the style of carols from the renaissance. The text of A Virgin Unspotted is from 17th-century England; the arrangement by William Knapp was printed in London in 1743 and later also in the United States. Others are newly-composed or written down from oral tradition. Of course, these more modern pieces are musically different, but it is an indication of the ongoing tradition in Christmas music that one doesn't feel they are out of step with the rest of the programme.
I was a bit surprised about the release of this disc as I thought that Anonymous 4 had been disbanded some years ago. But apparently they have not, and that is just as well. During the years of their existence they have produced a number of great recordings with little-known repertoire. The combination of adventurous programming, a performance practice which is based on historical research and a perfect blending of the four voices make this disc - as so many previous ones - a winner. The historical pronunciation which Anonymous 4 uses is still not common practice. The items are all printed in their original spelling in the booklet, with translations in modern English, French and German. The performance of the American items is clearly different from that of the older pieces. As a result both the similarities and the differences between the renaissance and the 18th/19th-century settings are coming to the fore.
I can't find any reason not to welcome this disc enthusiastically and recommend it, not just to lovers of renaissance music, and not only for Christmastide. It is a disc for all seasons.
Johan van Veen (© 2010)