Blue Heron brings medieval Christmas music to vivid life

December 19, 2015 at 10:10 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Scott Metcalfe led Blue Heron in a Christmas program Friday night at First Church in Cambridge.

Concerts of Christmas music populate the Boston season each December, but particularly enjoyable this time of year are those programs that offer little-heard music. One ensemble known for its enterprising Christmas programs is the Cambridge-based choir Blue Heron.

Friday night at First Church, the conductor-less Renaissance choir, prepared by Scott Metcalfe, presented one of its most popular programs, “Christmas in Medieval England.” Comprising motets by Leonel Power and John Dunstaple along with a selection of chants and carols, the program made a hauntingly beautiful and uplifting occasion fit for the holidays.

Blue Heron brought this ancient music to vivid life, singing in small groups that ranged from two to eight singers. The choir is a first-rate ensemble and delivered each piece with a pristine vocal blend and clean, penetrating tone that was clear in all registers. But beyond those qualities, the singers have a remarkable ability to shade and match their voices with each other in both large and small forces. Tenor and countertenor voices meld silkily with sopranos for music of pure, crystalline textures.

For the chant selections, the men of the choir sang standing around the candlelit alter in the darkness of the church. Their singing of Veni, veni Emanuel was spacious, the phrases moving as gently as breathe.

Two movements, a Sanctus and an Agnus Dei, from an anonymous Missa Veterem hominem were particularly expressive. Featuring eight singers, these pieces split the ensemble into pairs and trios for phrases of long florid melody. The anonymous Ave rex angelorum had a similar mournful air as Guillaume de Machaut’s Puis qu’en oubli.

But the highlights were motets by Power and Dunstaple (the current preferred spelling by scholars to the former “Dunstable”).  The two were contemporaries and stand as the most influential English composers of the early fifteenth century. Their style of harmonic writing included use of thirds and sixths rather than the then-customary open fourths and fifths, which gave their music a warm, ringing quality.  

That was apparent in Blue Heron’s performance of Dunstaple’s motet Gaude virgo salutata/Gaude virgo singularis. The singers rendered the lines, which involved two separate texts sounding at the same time, with smooth vocal blend. The tenors provided the momentum, sounding out their isorhythmic melodic fragments with fine control.

Dunstaple’s most famous work, Quam pulcra es, was pure-toned and sveltely phrased due to the superb singing of Martin Near, Stefan Reed, and Michael Barrett. 

Power’s Gloria, also heard Friday, is replete with criss-crossing lines and harmonic cadences that beguile the ear even today. The singers gave the work a nimble, dance-like feel, enabling the swirling and commingling lines to spin freely. The closing Amen was particularly rich and resonant.

One of the most curious pieces heard Friday night was a Gloria by Pycard, about whom little is known beyond the dates during which he flourished (1410-1420). It’s a lithe, attractive work set in a brisk triple meter with notable use of hocket. Blue Heron gave the piece a lilting performance. 

Director Scott Metcalfe lent support on the harp for a number of carols. His accompaniment added silvery layers to “Angelus ad virginem,” where Daniela Tošić sang the melody with rich amber tone.

She joined Pamela Dellal and Michael Barrett in the final verses of “Gabriel fram Heven.” There, the musicians sang freely, the melody swirling in the air like smoke. 

Also affecting was “Hayl Mary, ful of Grace,” where Tošić and company found the deep mystery in the music’s portrayal of Mary’s conception. 

The final piece, a foot-tapping “Nowel syng we bothe al and som,” was delivered by the full ensemble with crisp precision, sending the listeners into the night with a spring in their step. 

The program will be repeated 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday at First Church in Cambridge. blueheronchoir.org

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