The Blue Heron Renaissance Choir, directed, and on occasion with instruments performed, by Scott Metcalfe, presented a superbly conceived and executed complex program, “Christmas at the Courts of the 15th-Century France, Burgundy, & Cyprus,” to a packed First Church in Cambridge Congregational on Saturday, December 18; it was repeated in New York City the following day at Corpus Christi Church on West 21st St.
Cyprus, you ask? Well yes, as was explained in Metcalfe’s equally superb program notes. The island, conquered by Richard Coeur de Lion during the Crusades, was ruled from 1191 to 1491 by the noble French family of Guy de Lausignan and his descendents. And isn’t Burgundy part of France, again you ask? Well not exactly: it was a separate duchy during much of the 15th century until it fell into the hands of the Hapsburgs in 1477. (That’s enough for now — read the notes — and while you’re at it, whether you’re a neophyte or an aficionado, do read Metcalfe’s statement on the performance practices adopted by the Blue Heron, just to begin to understand the kinds of musical choices they must make.)
One more item from the program notes I should quote in full:
[I]t is a bitter truth that some of the most joyous Christmas texts are marred by venomous barbs aimed at Jews and others regarded by Christianity as unbelievers; some of these were set to beautiful music. There is no single solution to this problem. Our choice is to emend the texts so that we can sing them wholeheartedly, and Richard Tarrant and Larry Rosenwald devised good solutions for [Grenon’s] Nova vobis gaudia and [Dufay’s] Letabundus, respectively.
This topic has been raised recently in reference to later music (Handel’s Messiah), and remains controversial, but there is no reason to debate Metcalfe’s decision here.
Metcalfe has a nice sense of drama that puts his richly excellent musical ensemble over the top. The program’s divisions were designated as “Advent,” “Christmas,” and “New Year’s,” with a later return to “Christmas” almost as a coda. For Advent, he noted that the days are short and the nights long before the winter solstice, so the opening plain chant antiphon for December 20, O clavis David (O key of David), was presented nearly in the dark, with only the church’s candles for light, and five of the twelve singers singing in a semicircle with their backs to the audience, facing a substantial candelabra (so they could see their music). They then turned around, and with only slightly more light, sang Jacob Obrecht’s multi-texted and multi-textured five-voice motet, Factor orbis (Maker of the world), based in part on O clavis and also on the next chant, O virgo virginum (O virgin of virgins), which in turn was followed by Josquin’s six-part motet of the same title. “Advent” concluded with Conditor alme siderum (O beautiful creator of the stars), an alternatim hymn in which seven voices sing the first verse of the chant in unison, followed by the next verse sung by three voices with the chant melody on top, and the other voices in fauxbourdon, the middle voice a fourth below the melody; after three alternations, the piece ends with a striking “Amen” in unison (i.e., sung by all ten voices). This was the first of three evenly spaced works by Guillaume Dufay, the others appearing in the next two sections.
The twelve singers in this concert as a whole were: mezzo-soprano Jennifer Ashe, countertenors Douglas Dodson, Martin Near, and Gerrod Pagenkopf; tenors Michael Barrett, Brad Fugate, Owen McIntosh, Jason McStoots, and Mark Sprinkle; baritone Glenn Billingsley; bass-baritone Paul Guttry; and bass John Proft. They all did themselves proud.
“Christmas” began with the long and complex Nato canunt omnia (The whole host sings piously), by Antoine Brumel. In this case the “whole host” alternated with solo voices, using a plethora of texts and canti fermi, resulting in a joyful, even “rollicking” motet, as Metcalfe says, which was to carry us through the immediately following long intermission. “Christmas” continued with Dufay’s Letabundus (Full of joy), a Christmas sequence (liturgically speaking) that, like his earlier Conditor alme siderum, depended on alternating chant (à 4) with three-voiced solos — the latter in two groups that also alternated until they sang together in the final strophe (à 6). This section ended with Jean Mouton’s Marian sequence, Ave Maria, gratia plena (Hail Mary full of grace), a lovely chant-based tribute sung by ten voices.
Whereas “Advent” and “Christmas“ comprised liturgical chant or motets based on them, “New Years’s Day” presented five secular works, songs of courtly love about the traditional gift-giving. Metcalfe took this opportunity to introduce the early instruments that might have been substituted for vocal parts (see performance practices): he himself performed (always from memory) on vielle (medieval fiddle) and harp, and Laura Jeppeson on vielle and rebec (a small bowed lute). Baude Cordier’s Ce jour de l’an (This New Year’s Day) was sung with poignance by Martin Near and accompanied by the two vielles. Gilles de Binchois’ Margarite, fleur de valeur (Margarite, flower of valor) was sung without accompaniment by Jason McStoots, Paul Guttry, and John Proft, providing a nice change of emphasis to the lower vocal range. Johannes Ockeghem’s well-known D’ung aultre amer (Of another love) was performed in an arrangement for rebec and harp alone by Johannes Tinctoris. Dufay’s chanson, Entre vous, gentils amoureux (Among yourselves, noble lovers), presented two high voices (Gerrod Pagenkopf and Mark Sprinkle) with vielle (Metcalfe), and Nicolas Grenon’s La plus belle et doulce figure (The most beautiful and sweet figure) was sung with appropriate grace by Martin Near, accompanied by vielle and harp.
In the return to “Christmas,” we heard two longer works. Grenon’s Nova vobis gaudia refero (I bring you news of great joy) was performed by four (unidentified) high voices, vielle, and harp. The final cadence, following two joyful “Noel”s, is a two-voiced Amen—the “A” on a perfect fourth, and the “men” expanding to a perfect fifth, sung fortissimo. Now that is truly a joyful sound! The Cypriote repertoire was represented by Hodie puer nascitur (triplum) / Homo mortalis (duplum) (A boy is born today / Man is mortal), an anonymous, bitextual, isorhythmic, mystical motet for Christmas Day from a manuscript dated 1413-1422. (Again the lights were dimmed.) It was sung by a tenor soloist and six other voices in the upper ranges with great beauty, reverence, and respect for the complexities of the structure. For an encore, the ensemble strung itself out across the full chancel, with full lighting, and sang (joined by Laura Jeppesen), “Nova, nova,” a rousing unison tune based on simply “Do-La-Do-Sol,” repeated until Metcalfe gave the signal to stop. I have no idea where this comes from, but it’s a keeper!