Just when the time seemed more than judicious for Anonymous 4 to look beyond the fertile yet increasingly familiar chant repertoire by which the amazing foursome made its name and changed the face of modern medieval music performance, out comes this abundantly delightful program of 14th-century polyphonic songs. The composer, Francesco Landini, was one of the greatest masters of this form, which during this period in Italy coincided with the appearance of Dante’s dolce stil nuovo–“sweet new style” of poetry writing. Primarily secular, the poetic themes were the usual ones, the three “l’s” of love, lust, and longing–for love that was possible, for love that wasn’t, and, in the latter case, longing for death rather than suffer the pain of hopeless, eternal separation from the object of one’s desire. The disc’s title refers to the Divine Comedy’s “second circle of hell” and lovers’ trials and tribulations within. Within the bounds of these two- and three-part vocal settings Landini uses his rhythmic structures, highly refined melodic material, and expansive harmonic tools as a kaleidoscope uses colors and patterns, creating ever attractive, sometimes surprising, pleasingly sophisticated pieces. The two-part songs often appear more intricate than those for three, but through each runs a beautifully-spun thread of melody that combines with inventive harmonic voicings to convey the mood and meaning of the text.
And the texts are one of the joys of this repertoire. Landini also was a poet and he used many of his own works for his musical settings. Among these 17 songs are examples of some of the most heartfelt, impassioned expressions of devotion and love you’ll find anywhere. Of course, the translations provided–in English, French, and German–only suggest what must be the richer beauty of the original Italian, but that’s where these four extraordinary singers come in. Anonymous 4 has been performing early music for a long time and if anything the singers know how to present a song and how to inflect and otherwise articulate its meaning to an audience. With their passionate, romantic themes these ballate, as the form was known, invite first rate interpreters to show their best stuff, and that’s what we get here. Over the years this group has lost nothing of its original purity of tone, natural, warm vocal color, or impeccable musical technique. No matter what the repertoire, the result was and is the same: musical satisfaction guaranteed. Again, as we’ve come to expect, the sound is ideal, the packaging is gorgeous. My only question now is, what will they think of next?