If the royal or noble women who joined the Cistercian order called Las Huelgas in the 13th or 14th centuries sang anything like the Anonymous 4 did Tuesday night at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, they must have been some singers. We know that because the repertoire for the evening, which was like a day of music at the religious house, came from the Codex Las Huelgas. This is an anthology of polyphonic and monophonic Latin songs copied during this time period.
What was special about the music, besides its complexity and high skill levels, is that the nuns were not supposed to sing polyphony — only a hired choir of male chaplains had that honor. But left to their own devices, the women not only sang these songs, which were both liturgical and secular in honor of the Virgin Mary, they made decisions for both administrative and religious concerns. Rebels in a way. Thus, the title for the evening was “Secret Voices.”
Ruth Cunningham, Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek were joined by vielle player (a kind of violin) Shira Kammen and percussionist Peter Maund. It was the group’s third visit to the hall as part of the Troy Chromatic Concerts series.
They sang in Latin or Spanish and in different groupings, ranging from a solo voice with the instruments to a vocal quartet a cappella. In keeping with what is thought to be the style of the period, the singers focused on the purity of their tone without vibrato. Although each woman’s voice had a different quality, they blended beautifully with exact pitch. Their control was impressive. It’s one thing to sing a solo, but each of their lines in the polyphony is like a solo and must fit with the others. They were on track in all the pieces, especially for the virtuosic “Salve virgo regia,” which was incredibly complicated with constantly interweaving lines for the four voices.
For the most part, they sang in phrases and took a breath together. Pieces were short and the songs were all strophic.
Some of the motets or songs were worshipful and thus ethereal and transcendent in mood, such as the “Ave maris stella” and the motet “Claustrum pudicicie.” But others had bounce or were like a slow dance, such as “Santa maria stela do dia” or the final “Entre Ave e Eva.”
The instrumentalists helped them along. Kammen’s lines were always with double stops. Sometimes her phrases were like a bluegrass or a raucous kind of jig. Maund played a small round drum that got a twangy sound or a tambourine. They also played two pieces together, playing off each other rhythmically and technically.
Cunningham did a solo turn with the medieval harp in “Virgen madre groriosa” in which her voice soared. It was very magical.
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