What a novel idea! Under the aegis of Naxos producer Colin J. Rae and annotator Dean Brierly, here is a two-disc compilation dedicated to the works of the most prolific composer of all time: Anonymous. There are lots of reasons why musical works come down through history without attribution; in the earliest days of notation, sacred compositions themselves were viewed as being the result of a collective for a collective purpose, and it was rare for a composer -- or even a scribe -- to affix his or her name to such a production. As musical works became associated more definitively with the hands that crafted them, the names gradually began to appear, though it was a long process and Anonymous works are still relatively common into the seventeenth century; it took a long time for the cult of the composer in Western music to become truly established. Music publishing had an important effect on this development because it was discovered that a work attached to a composer's name -- particularly that of a successful composer -- was more commercial than one that didn't have a composer at all. This led to a cottage industry of Anonymous music attributed to big name composers -- Franz Joseph Haydn was a frequent victim of the practice -- who had never seen the scores appearing under their names.
But in this release, Naxos doesn't take the story quite so far; electing to end its survey of Anonymous at about 1700, and indeed, by this time the named composer was pretty much the rule of law; in manuscript copies a name was supplied to works -- often wrongly -- even if there was no name known. By virtue of restricting to such compass -- mainly the Medieval and Renaissance eras -- Naxos is able to showcase its wide variety of outstanding offerings in regard to music of these periods. The sequencing of the 48 Anonymous works presented is pleasant and easy to follow, and the performers represented are for the most part truly great ones -- Tonus Peregrinus, Ensemble Unicorn, Oni Wytars Ensemble, Rose Consort of Viols, and so forth. The only real shortcomings of the modest package -- which fetches a price point of two for the cost of a disc and a half -- is that we are not informed which albums the tracks are taken from, and the detailed tracklisting on the back of the jewel case is printed in a very small typeface that's hard to read. The titles and timings listing on the back of the outer slipcase is a little easier to read, but that of course doesn't tell us who is performing what; nevertheless, this time it didn't have to be cluttered up with a lot of composer names! An amusing liner note, provided by Brierly, posits a "biography" for Anonymous in a slightly tongue-in-cheek manner that is delightful and amusing. While we may never know who wrote the music on Naxos' Anonymous, it serves its purpose well as a quirky yet comprehensive collection of Naxos' early music recordings and is a bounty of music to boot.