Album du jour: Anonymous 4, “1865”

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Anonymous 4, the female vocal quartet that rose to unexpected fame in the 1990’s for luminous renditions of previously little-known Medieval masses, chants, carols and other discoveries, has announced that the 2015-2016 season will be their last.  I had the pleasure of presenting A4 on a few occasions in the well-nigh perfect acoustics of St. Mary’s Church, Northampton, a space they loved, and where they were videotaped for a feature on CBS TV’s “Sunday Morning.”  In my decades of classical concert presentation, I have never come across more charming and personable artists — best of luck to the five women who have been “on the band” over the years as they pursue individual projects.

While their repertoire has focused primarily on the first centuries of the previous millennium, A4 has made occasional forays forward into more recent times, including premieres of works by Steve Reich, David Lang, and other icons of musical post-modernism.  During my classical radio career, I gave the most play to their two albums of old American hymns and folk songs, “American Angels” and “Gloryland,” featuring irresistible performances of “Amazing Grace,” “Wondrous Love,” “Wayfaring Stranger” and other enduring melodies.  Well, if I were still on the air, A4’s latest album,”1865: Songs of Hope and Home from the American Civil War,” performed with old-timey singer and instrumentalist Bruce Molsky, would have zoomed immediately to the top of my personal hit parade.

A beautifully programmed selection of 20 well-known and little-known Civil War-era parlor songs, war ballads (from both north and south), hymns and dance tunes, “1865” captures the zeitgeist of this tragic time of our nation’s history as movingly as any other musical collection I know.  The celebrated purity of Anonymous 4’s harmonizing (with Molsky’s baritone added for the choruses) lends a slightly stark, folk-painting quality to such numbers as the opening “Weeping, Sad and Lonely” and the concluding “Shall We Gather at the River,” while the various solos, duets and other vocal permutations, accompanied or a cappella, add warmth and color to what could have been, in lesser hands, rather monotonous.  And what a wonderful addition Molsky makes, with his slightly rustic voice and masterful fiddling and banjoing — it’s my first encounter with him, but hopefully not my last.  Very highly recommended.

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