Since its founding 28 years ago, the women’s vocal quartet Anonymous 4 has staked its place as the “Fab Four”of medieval music. The latest addition to its extensive discography presents 20 selections from the Montpellier Codex, a compendium of motets and liturgical polyphony composed in France during the second half of the 13th century. The performances are characteristically clear-voiced, sweet-timbred, elegantly restrained, and delicately balanced. Medieval French motets may strike modern listeners as curious pieces, mash-ups of worldly song and plainchant, their individual parts delivering completely disparate texts (some in French, others in Latin), with imagery interlacing in a confluence of the sacred and the secular, as in the duple character of the sacred Marie and the secular Marion. The motets range from relatively austere two-voiced pieces to more glamorous settings for four voices, and in these interpretations they cover considerable expressive range, from amorous languor to skipping jollity. Interspersed among them are four solo songs of the period (not from the Montpellier Codex) that spotlight each of the singers. All are beautiful and seductive, but the most unforgettable is Susan Hellauer’s rendition of the spring-song “Volez vous que je vous chant,” the seductive contours of which oddly prefigure Anna Sosenko’s 1935 hit “Darling, je vous aime beaucoup” (also a macaronic piece), which became famous as the theme song of the chanteuse Hildegarde.
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