Harmonia Mundi HMU 807549
Format: Hybrid Multichannel SACD
Musical Performance: *****
Sound Quality: *****
Overall Enjoyment: *****
Startled by the ratings? Let me tell you, this is the most perfect album, in all aspects, that I have heard in a long, long time.
Anonymous 4 usually records medieval and Renaissance motets, albums that have all garnered critical acclaim. The third release in the group’s Americana trilogy, 1865 is devoted to songs of the American Civil War and celebrates the 150th anniversary of the war’s conclusion.
The group, which has announced that it will disband in 2016, did a lot of research to find songs that were actually written during the four-year duration of the war or songs written earlier that were still widely performed, in music halls, parlors, and around campfires on battlefields. They have collaborated with Bruce Molsky, who sings and plays both fiddle and banjo.
According to band member Marsha Genensky’s notes, the program represents “composers . . . producing several thousand songs during the war years, about 700 released by Southern publishers, the rest by Northern publishers.” These songs were issued in several formats, including lavishly illustrated sheet music, and cheaper single-sheet versions called song sheets or broadsides. Lyrics “were printed in pocket-sized collections called songsters, which were carried by both soldiers and civilians.”
The songs address the horrors of losing friends and family on the battlefield and the longing for better days after “the cruel war” is over. The various configurations on the disc include Anonymous 4 a cappella, both with and without Molsky. The four women also sing with Molsky on banjo and fiddle, and there are solo spots for each of them with Molsky’s vocal and instrumental participation. No matter what the approach, it seems just right for the song at hand.
“Tenting on the Old Camp Ground” receives an almost eerie reading by the quartet, while on “Listen to the Mocking Bird,” the four women partner with Molsky’s banjo for the best upbeat, chattering version I have ever heard of this familiar tune. The saddest song, “The Picture on the Wall” is performed by the entire ensemble:
Among the brave and loyal,
How many lov’d ones fall!
Whose friends bereft, Have only left
A picture on the wall.
It is not all gloom and doom. There are many upbeat tunes that were the pop music of the day. All of it is sung and played immaculately and recorded in intimate sound that could not be better. The CD layer of the SACD is good, but the SACD, by capturing the reverberation in the surrounds, moves the soundstage out of your speakers and forward into the room for uncanny realism.
The disc is packaged in a handsome digipak that holds a hefty booklet full of wonderful period photos, art, and silhouettes. The back part contains complete listings of Anonymous 4’s releases on Harmonia Mundi, complete with mini album covers.
If this disc is not nominated for a Grammy Award next year, I will be very surprised.
. . . Rad Bennett