Boston Camerata presents a heart-warming Medieval Christmas program

December 4, 2016 at 1:12 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

"Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry," Limbourg Brothers, 1412–16.

“Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry,” Limbourg Brothers, 1412–16.

Christmas music is something of a specialty for the Boston Camerata. Over the past several decades, the group has presented and recorded programs that explored seasonal music of France, Spain, Germany, and America.

Saturday night at the First Parish Church in Newbury, Anne Azéma and the Camerata presented one of their oldest and most haunting holiday programs: “Puer Natus Est: a Medieval Christmas.”

Christmas celebrations in Medieval Europe were as varied and lively as those experienced today. Boston Camerata’s heartwarming concert, which consisted of chants and songs drawn from all over Europe and spanning three centuries, reflected that diversity. 

Interpretation of music from this time is always a tricky matter. Unlike the art and architecture of the period, we are left with very little information to go on. Many manuscripts leave just text and a notation much different from that seen on paper today. Moreover, instruments, if they were used at all, are not specified, nor are tempo and dynamic indications. Scholars and performers of this music are left to reconstruct the sound world from whence it came. The result, in that sense, is entirely modern, immediate, and always of the moment.

Saturday’s performance, delivered expertly by vocalists Azéma, Deborah Rentz-Moore, and Camila Parias, along with Jacob Mariani (vielles, guittern), and Christa Patton (harp, winds), offered a vivid picture of this little-known but important music.

Azéma possesses a bright, ringing voice that was well suited to the many dancelike songs heard on the program. She had simpatico partners in Rentz-Moore, who sang with a dark, chocolaty voice, and Parias, whose singing had a bell-toned power and grace. Patton’s bagpipes, whistles, crumhorn, and harp and Mariani’s vielles added splashes of instrumental color. 

Most of the music on the program was remarkable for delicate melodies. The Gregorian chants spun like fine thread, with the singers shaping the tunes with graceful phrasing and gentle rubato. But there were pieces that contained subtle harmonic shading. “Judicii signum” features a flowering melody than flows over sustained pitches, resulting in ear-tingling dissonances and ringing open fifths. The English song “Edi be thu hevene quene,” which celebrates the Virgin Mary, unfolded from one to three parts. Its rhythm, supplied by Patton (bagpipes) and Mariani (vielle), moved with toe-tapping energy. “Santa Maria graciae—Dou way, Robin” is a fourteenth-century English motet that features two texts. The Latin verse, almost a tongue-twister, turns over repeated phrases set in Old English in the lower voices that have the rhythmic drive one would encounter in Steve Reich’s music. The singers sang this interesting work with delicacy and precision.

The Aquitanian songs offered some of the most colorful music on the program and the most melodically beautiful. Each short piece moved with a terpsichorean lilt. “Nos virgines,” sung by Parias, was adorned with vocal shakes and grace notes. “Amen dico,” delivered by Rentz-Moore in dark, deep tones, had hints of righteous anger. And “Clara sonent organa” was a trickling dance that trailed off into vocal trills, which were delivered softly by Azéma.

A few of the pieces on the program were composed by King Alfonso X of Castile, who was known as “el Sabio” (“The Wise”). “Maravilosos et piadosos” was entirely instrumental, and Patton (whistle), Mariani (vielle), and Azéma (hurdy-gurdy) wove its lines into a foot-stomping dance. “Pois que dos reys nostre Senhor,” a narrative telling of the visit of the Magi, featured the singers in sensitive dynamic shading to convey the emotional immediacy of the story.

The closer, a twelfth-century “Gregis pastor,” was a grand recessional. The interwoven melodies bristled softly against one another before coming to rest on a pristine, single note. Rarely has music so ancient sounded so modern.

The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday at Old South Church in Boston.

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