Boston’s Blue Heron warms a chilly night with early music

Mon Feb 16, 2015 at 1:31 pm
Blue Heron performed Sunday night in a program presented by Music Before 1800.

Blue Heron performed Sunday night in a program presented by Music Before 1800.

New York has escaped the brunt of the winter of 2015 so far, but that hasn’t stopped the city’s musical calendar from being affected. It seemed on Saturday night that Music Before 1800’s Sunday program would be another casualty, but as the program began, executive director Louise Basbas proudly declared that “we have never had to cancel a concert.” That the Blue Heron choir managed to get here at all was a minor miracle, given the beating that their hometown of Boston has taken over the last few weeks.

Blue Heron now occupies an exalted place in Boston’s crowded firmament of early music ensembles, and with good reason: their program in New York on Sunday showed them to be a group of polished and artistically sensitive musicians.

Blue Heron’s strongest performances came in selections by Johannes Ockeghem. Indeed, it seemed the program was constructed to highlight Ockeghem, whose complete works will be a primary focus of the group’s next few seasons.

The concert opened with “De plus en plus” by Gilles Binchois, the first of multiple selections to showcase Martin Near’s cool, beaming countertenor. Here, as well as in Binchois’s “Pour prison ne pour maladie,” his singing was crystal clear, and he spun beautiful, blooming top notes.

These two pieces were positioned to introduce the Ockeghem pieces they inspired. The Missa “De plus en plus”, split into two parts on this program, showed the precision and artistry of Blue Heron’s musicians, the intertwining lines of the full cohort of singers weaving together into complex, vibrant tapestries.

In “La despourveue et la bannye,” which quotes Binchois’s “Pour prison,” the mezzo-soprano Pamela Dellal showed a strong vibrato that fitfully threatened to overwhelm the repertoire. Even so, her easy, floating tone and brought shimmering life to the music.

D’ung aultre amer and O Rosa bella, instrumental duets by Ockeghem, showed Scott Metcalfe’s and Laura Jeppesen’s skill on harp, vielle, and rebec, while Guillaume Du Fay’s  “Departes vous, Malebouche et Envie” displayed more of the singers’ lyrical instinct.

If there was a single shining jewel on this program, though, it was Ockeghem’s “Mort, tu as navré de ton dart.” Written as an elegy for Binchois, this is a somber, soulful piece, and it proved an ideal vehicle for the tenor Owen McIntosh. His sound here was glorious–an even, solid tone with just a hint of tang at its top, stressing the urgency of the music, but never threatening to break.

It was McIntosh’s intense sorrow that carried this work, but he was well supported by the other tenors of Blue Heron. An unusual but shatteringly effective aspect of “Mort” is that it has the accompanying voices repeat the final line of the Sequence from the Requiem mass against the French verses of the melodic voice. The warm, tight accompaniment of the Blue Heron tenors in the refrain buttressed McIntosh’s florid sighing to create a deeply moving performance.

The program will be repeated February 21 in Cambridge.

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