Review by: David Vernier

Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

It’s been 10 years–1993’s On Yoolis Night–since we heard this ensemble sing real Christmas carols–in English, even. Fans of this extraordinary quartet will be pleasantly surprised with this choice of repertoire–and with the beautiful accompaniments by Andrew Lawrence-King and his harps. The majority of the selections are traditional English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, and even Cornish songs, but we’re also treated to world-premiere recordings of pieces by Peter Maxwell Davies (A Calendar of Kings) and Geoffrey Burgon (A god, and yet a man?). Then there’s a luminous all-female rendition of John Tavener’s justly popular The Lamb (his first success, a sincere and simple work unencumbered by later self-conscious religious agendas) and the concluding A New Year Carol, where Benjamin Britten’s original arpeggiated piano accompaniment lends itself perfectly to this setting where the unison voices are supported by Lawrence-King’s Baroque harp.

Anonymous 4’s Johanna Maria Rose shows that she knows a thing or two about arranging for the voices she’s been singing with for the past couple of decades, contributing her own very pleasing takes on the carols The holly and the ivy, Grene growith the holy, and I saw three ships. Highlights are many, but include Peter Maxwell Davies’ uniquely affecting A Calendar of Kings, basically a fanciful harmonic journey through the wondrous imagery of George Mackay Brown’s poem–a mystical trip not through Eastern landscapes but rather through the poet’s own Orkney Islands–that’s full of wild and wonderful colors and startling effects that show off Anonymous 4’s rarely heard contemporary-music chops. Richard Rodney Bennett’s setting of Balulalow is a gem, as are Marsha Genensky’s solo interpretation of Good people all, accompanied by Lawrence-King’s vibrant, bell-like Irish harp, and the irresistibly “catchy” Can wassel (Wassail Song).

The disc is enhanced by a well-planned programming order that ensures transitions from track to track are smooth and sensitive to keys and to the listener’s need both for tonal continuity and musical variety. For some reason, the sound on the latter part of the disc is more resonant and present than on the opening tracks–a situation that takes about two seconds to adjust to. It need not be said that Anonymous 4 fans will want this without delay. And if it’s possible that there are listeners new to this group, here’s an easy way to get to know its matchless sound and enduring, engaging personality. [10/4/2003]

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Recording Details:

Album Title: WOLCUM YULE

Traditional Celtic & British songs & carols and original works by John Tavener, Geoffrey Burgon, Richard Rodney Bennett, Peter Maxwell Davies, & Benjamin Britten -

  • Andrew Lawrence-King (Irish harp, Baroque harp, psaltery)
  • Anonymous 4

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