Blue Heron brings seasonal warmth to 15th-century French program

Mon Dec 19, 2016 at 1:19 pm
Blue Heron performed in the Music Before 1800 series Sunday at Corpus Christi Church.

Blue Heron performed in the Music Before 1800 series Sunday at Corpus Christi Church.

‘Tis the season for holiday concerts, parades of favorites that rarely challenge their audiences. Programming, keeping the box office in mind, tends to offer feasts of familiarity, the same comforting repertoire that we hear year after year.

Blue Heron’s concert, hosted by Music Before 1800 Sunday afternoon at Corpus Christi Church, provided a welcome contrast, exploring “Christmas at the Courts of 15th-Century France & Burgundy” with music from the late 14th through early 16th centuries.

Like many of the ensembles that Music Before 1800 invites to perform, the Boston-based Blue Heron enjoys a formidable reputation among early-music ensembles. They’ve earned that reputation for their precision, musical sensitivity, and vibrant tone, from singers and instrumentalists alike.

Blue Heron organized its varied program thematically, beginning with a set of selections for Advent. All of these items were for voices without instrumental accompaniment, leading with the plainchant “O clavis David,” beautifully sung by Blue Heron’s flowing basses. A second plainchant, “O virgo virginum,” was equally haunting, sung by a trio of women and followed by a more intricate, winding setting of the same text for six male voices. Antoine Brumel’s setting of the “Ave Maria” was one of Sunday’s highlights, tenderly melding together a trio of female voices.

For several of Sunday’s pieces, the singers stood in unusual arrangements, taking advantage of the church’s acoustic characteristics to produce specific sonic effects. In Guillaume Du Fay’s “Conditor alme siderum,” eight men stood in a circle on the altar, while three soloists stood down in front, bringing their parts into relief.

Blue Heron’s singers do not exhibit the bright chilliness that is common among vocal groups, particularly in sacred music. Even though they sing largely with straight tone, there is a rich warmth to their sound, giving vibrant color to the music. Adrian Willaert’s “Praeter rerum seriem,” one of several pieces for Christmas in the middle of the program, offered a sumptuous sound to luxuriate in, as vivid, distinct lines flowed into and over each other. Martin Near’s impressive, clear countertenor acted as a streak of bright color amid the opulent texture.

The third set, music for New Year’s Day, offered secular music in Old French for voices with light instrumental accompaniment. These selections alternated in two primary modes—some, such as Nicolas Grenon’s “La plus belle et doulce figure” and Gilles Binchois’s “Margarite, fleur de valeur,” were loving, honeyed songs of devotion, tinged with just a hint of melancholy. The rest, including Guillaume Malbecque’s “Dieu vous doinst bon jour et demy” and Du Fay’s “Ce jour de l’an voudray joie mener,” sounded crisp and jig-like, marked by festive bounce, sung with buoyant clarity.

Having cycled through the December calendar, Blue Heron finished the printed program with two more Christmas items. Jonhannes Ciconia’s “Gloria spiritus et alme,” written for four male voices, showed a bright, gleaming tone, while Brumel’s “Nato canunt omnia,” tied off the scheduled concert with a full-voiced, sprightly jubilation.

Music Before 1800’s next concert will take place 4 p.m. January 15, 2017 at Corpus Christi Church. Jesse Blumberg and ACRONYM will perform music by Johann Rosenmüller.

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