The ever more popular Renaissance choir Blue Heron was joined by UK-based Ensemble Plus Ultra for a stellar performance on Saturday, October 15th at First Church Congregational in Cambridge. The program, entitled “A 16th-Century Meeting of England and Spain,” was a musical tribute to a century that was politically defined by various partnerships and conflicts between the two countries. Blue Heron’s portion of the program focused on repertoire from the Eton Choirbook and Peterhouse books, two important sources of English sacred music from the early 16th century. Ensemble Plus Ultra took over most of the second half of the concert, featuring six works by Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611) and ending with a stunning motet by Francisco Guerrero (1528-99), Duo seraphim a 12.
Blue Heron and Ensemble Plus Ultra joined forces for the opening work, O Maria salvatoris, a votive antiphon by English composer John Browne (active around 1500). Conducted by Blue Heron’s director, Scott Metcalfe, the work instantly transformed the space with a soaring soprano invocation of the Virgin Mary. There was a glorious match of sound between the two ensembles, and Browne’s constantly shifting textures were executed seamlessly, largely due to Metcalfe’s conducting. His sense of timing was refined and elegant. Never wallowing excessively in the sonorities, he allowed momentum to interpolate the melismatic gestures into the texture, rather than focusing on them as virtuosic moments of soloistic grandstanding. Highlights of the work included some excellent countertenor moments in the fourth verse, which featured only male voices, and the particularly resonant texture of the fifth verse, which pitted Paul Guttry’s solid bass voice against the clear bell-like sonorities of the sopranos. The final verse, beginning with the text “Theologia disputans” in a reduced texture, demonstrated how involved this polyphony actually is, no doubt with a conscious reference to “theological dispute” and its various complexities. In keeping with the text painting, the final word of the antiphon, “melodia,” was a blossoming of polyphony that showcased the true exquisiteness of both these ensembles.
The Salve Regina a 5 by Richard Pygott (c. 1485-1549) featured Blue Heron alone, but one was struck by the richness of sound even without the combined forces. There is always something in this choir to make you listen more deeply, to lean forward and witness the inner voices. Their contrapuntal nuance is at times astounding, and this performance was a perfect example. Pygott’s work is full of harmonic surprises and shifting textures, with the verse tropes reduced to three voice parts. In the first section of the work, the tenors leaned overly into some of the high notes, but the men-only trio on the second verse trope, “Virgo Clemens, virgo pia…,” was one of the most stunning moments of the evening. Here the melodic lines were exposed gently but with extreme precision and articulation. The final line of the piece, “O dulcis Maria, salve,” was remarkable in its gradual increase of intensity from the exquisite reverence of “dulcis” to the blinding brilliance of “salve.”
Ensemble Plus Ultra sang one voice on a part in their presentation of various works by Victoria. The opportunity to hear them alone was intriguing, as it demonstrated the variety of timbres and tones between the two choirs. This group has a reedier quality to their sound than does Blue Heron, and this was a boon to the pieces featuring the two groups together. Michael Noone, who founded Ensemble Plus Ultra in 2001 and is on faculty at Boston College, was more gestural in his direction than was Metcalfe. Victoria’s Ave regina caelorum, with its dance-like shift of rhythm on “gaude gloriosa” and the unexpected momentum of “et pro nobis,” made good use of this gestural approach to the music. The group’s sensitivity to phrasing was profound, and the final utterance of “exhora” was indeed a most inspiring exhortation.
The three Victoria works on texts from the Song of Songs were not conducted, featuring smaller sextets in different combinations. Vidi speciosam featured three women and three men, with exposed voice parts that brought forth the more madrigal-like sensibilities of the text, such as the rising lines on “ascendit” and the flowery and gorgeous melismas on “lilia” (lily of the valley). Except for a slightly unwieldy entrance by the men on “Quae est ista quae ascendit…” and some weaker tenor phrasings, the performance was a highly nuanced presentation of this most secular of sacred texts. In Vadam et circuibo civitatem, which featured four men and two women, the soprano sound was more robust, providing a good balance to the counterweight of the stronger bass part. The group’s diction is excellent in general, but this work particularly exploited the expressivity of Latin vowels. The women shone in their short duet on “quia sic adiurasti nos?” and the cadences were all beautifully executed. Whereas Blue Heron occasionally suffers from too strident a tenor sound, here Ensemble Plus Ultra suffered from an overly languid tenor sound. In was particularly noticeable in this work because of the aforementioned gusto heard in the outer voices. The makeup of the sextet returned to three women and three men for Nigra sum, sed formosa filia Jerusalem. The rhythmic articulation on the opening phrase injected the entire work with good energy, and was an excellent conclusion to Ensemble Plus Ultra’s solo set.
Michael Noone led both ensembles in Victoria’s Laetatus sum, which contained some of the strongest and weakest performances of the concert. The solo choruses seemed tired, but then there were moments of utter brilliance as soloists brought out the lines of “super domum David.” The tutti statement of “Fiat pax in virtute tua” was strong and well-balanced, but led to a section that seemed unusually insecure. The transition to the doxology was smooth—it seemed the ensemble was reinvigorated by this passage, which was not included as part of the translation, perplexing some audience members.
The finale of the evening was Francisco Guerrero’s Duo seraphim, featuring both Blue Heron and Ensemble Plus Ultra, conducted by Noone. This gorgeous text presented the composer with multitudinous musical opportunities, which he exploited to the fullest. The overlapping and imitative entrances of the “two seraphim” were positively angelic. The first statement of “plena est omnis terra gloria eius” (…the whole earth is full of his glory) was sung with such passion and commitment that I felt a familiar catch in my throat as emotions took over and the music reached that level of sublimity that we always hope to hear from live performance.
One gratifying experience of the night actually came from the audience. How wonderful it was to hear people talking during intermission about the music; or Blue Heron; or the January 2011 review by Alex Ross in the New Yorker of Blue Heron’s recording of sacred music by English composers Hugh Aston, Robert Jones and John Mason. In his review, Ross commented on Blue Heron’s “quiver of passion” and indeed, it is this passion that sets them apart from many other early music ensembles. While the sense of serenity and the ethereal was never sacrificed, Blue Heron’s performance, along with Ensemble Plus Ultra, was artistically satisfying in its commitment to an earthly zeal for the repertoire. The early music movement can no longer rest on its highly controversial laurels of historically informed performance, or on producing ambient music for the new age movement. This repertoire is relevant, and can be made increasingly so by performances with assiduous attention to detail, ardent love for the music, and nuanced interpretations of texts once thought to be the ultimate poetry of sublimity. Blue Heron’s top-notch artistry, Scott Metcalfe’s program notes, and the pre-concert lectures as well as their commitment to education (see the “Performance Practice Corner” feature in the program), make this group a fantastic model for the fully-realized potential of early music performance in the 21st century.