5 de Diapason -
Gramophone Editor's Choice -
Many listeners have gotten their introduction to medieval music through the American vocal quartet Anonymous 4, which has a knack for performances that are insightful, sensuous, and apt at putting the concerns of the music into a contemporary settings. They remain productive after several personnel changes and two decades of recordings, several of which have performed strongly on classical sales charts. Marie et Marion is something of a sequel to the group's 1994 release Love's Illusion, which contained music on the theme of courtly love from a manuscript collection known as the Montpellier Codex. It was collected, around 1300, in Paris, not Montpellier, and it was, as far as it is possible to know at this late date, state-of-the-art stuff at the time. Marie et Marion focuses on a specific aspect of this repertory: the connections between sacred and secular polyphony at a time very close to the dawn of the latter. The two titular figures are the Virgin Mary and a shepherdess named Marion, the same one who appears in the earliest known work with a named composer, Adam de la Halle's Jeu de Robin et Marion, or Play of Robin and Marion. In that piece she rejects the amorous advances of the shepherd Robin, and here too she is, like Mary, rather unattainable. The point is that medieval musicians did not think of the sacred and secular spheres as firmly separated the way modern ones do. They could even, as a couple of pieces in the final "Marie-Marion" section of the program, be put together in the same piece, with sacred and secular texts going on at the same time (the use of multiple texts is characteristic of this music), and the foundational "tenors" of all the polyphonic pieces come from the realm of chant. This is a profitable listen either for the delicious sounds of the singers' voices clashing in the linear harmonies of the music, or for an introduction to the polytextual motet and chanson around 1300, or both.