It is the time of the year when fuss and obligations, whether festive or not, can feel overwhelming.
Anonymous 4 offered an antidote to these stressors with a performance that encouraged quiet contemplation for the appreciative capacity audience in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Sunday afternoon’s concert, presented by the Friends of Chamber Music, was Anonymous 4’s last Kansas City appearance; the group has announced that it will retire after the 2015-16 season.
This female a cappella quartet — Ruth Cunningham, Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek — has devoted much of the last three decades to discovering and promoting vocal music from the past millennium, from works restructured from manuscript fragments all the way to contemporary pieces written for the group.
For the Advent season, the quartet presented “On Yoolis Night,” with selections from its extensive recording history. The performance displayed the qualities that have garnered the ensemble multiple awards: luscious blend and tempered balance created by exquisite voices with steady, pure tones.
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The singers used a combination of musical styles and sources to tell the sacred Christmas tale, stories of prophecy and in praise of Mary and miracle and excitement of the birth of Christ, sung in Middle English and Latin.
With just a look and a breath (and a slight tone from the tuning fork), the quartet began. Its opening works exemplified the variety of styles: “Vox clara, ecce, intonat,” with an unhurried approach that welcomed a melodic line that wound around the pitch center, and a lively “Balaam de quo vaticinans/(Balaam)” pulsing with slight emphasis on the open vowels and lilting melody.
The carols “Ave Maria” and “Alleluia: A nywe werk” moved from unison line to parts like an unfurling rose, gently and with great care, resonating with effortless projection.
While most of the works were for four voices, they also performed in trio and as solo. “Ther is no rose of swych vertu” featured gliding intervals and a sweet soprano line, while the reflective “Salve virgo virginum” was, simply, gorgeous.
Cunningham’s solo performance of “Lullay my child — This endris nithgt” was pensive and demure, with subtle dynamic distinctions.
The 75-minute concert seemed like the briefest of respites to the holiday chatter, presented with no intermission or onstage commentary. The short, vivid encore, indicated with a cheery brandishing of the tuning fork, caused those who recognized it to chuckle. In Latin they proclaimed: “Go, Mass is ended. Thanks be to God.”