in: Reviews

October 21, 2013

1540 Oxford Via Blue Heron

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With the opening of their fifteenth season on Saturday evening at the First Church Congregational in Cambridge, Scott Metcalfe and the Blue Heron Renaissance Choir neared completion of a performance and recording project that brings an important repertory of almost-lost music to life.

Numerous manuscripts containing elaborate liturgical polyphony were deliberately destroyed or carelessly scattered during the English Reformation. Saturday’s program consisted entirely of music known only from a set of partbooks (the music for each voice notated in a separate book rather than side by side in a single choirbook) that were copied at Oxford around 1540 for use by the choir at Canterbury, newly re-founded as a cathedral soon after its monastic foundation was dissolved by Henry VIII. Four out of the original five partbooks eventually turned up in the library at Peterhouse, Cambridge; unfortunately, the tenor partbook and parts of the treble book were lost along the way. The British scholar Nick Sandon has not only established the origin of the partbooks and edited a series of editions, but also skillfully recomposed the missing voice parts.

Opening Saturday’s program was a votive antiphon to the Virgin by Nicholas Ludford, a singer and composer who was employed at the chapel of St. Stephen at Westminster. The text celebrates the five joys of Mary — her Conception, Nativity, Annunciation, Purification, and Assumption — in five short, rhymed stanzas. Among the joys of this setting are its supple and remarkably expressive melodic lines in ever-changing combinations of duets and trios alternating with full-voiced sections.

The program’s centerpiece was the five-voice Missa Spes nostra for Trinity Sunday by the hardly known Robert Jones, a singer in the Royal Household Chapel in the 1520s and 1530s. Since the Mass does not include a polyphonic Kyrie, the choir introduced it with a troped (expanded with added verses) plainchant Kyrie for Trinity Sunday, its restrained melody sung with remarkably expressive conviction. The polyphonic Gloria appeared as a triumphant outburst that contrasted with the more restrained and prayerful sections that followed. In this movement, as in the equally verbose Credo, text segments are carefully delineated through varied scoring that contrast bright and darker vocal colors. Exuberant counterpoint came to the fore in the Sanctus, with its mellifluous duets and trios and triumphantly full-voiced Osanna. Reduced scoring prevailed in the Agnus Dei, the full ensemble returning for the concluding “Dona nobis pacem.”

In between the third and fourth movements of the Mass we heard a Stabat mater by Robert Hunt, one of only two pieces by this otherwise unknown composer to have survived. The text used in his highly lyrical setting tells the story of the Virgin at the cross twice: first, in four stanzas of paired tercets, then in three pairs of quatrains that include the outcry “Crucify! Crucify!” as the narrative voice shifts from sorrowing reflection to dramatic narration and back again.

This exquisite English sacred polyphony deserves to be heard in all its glory, and Blue Heron is well-suited to the task. As director Scott Metcalfe explained in his informative program notes and pre-concert talk, its ensemble of highly-skilled professional singers resembles the size and distribution of typical pre-Reformation choirs in England. English choirboys in this period were specially trained to sing very high treble parts; other boys sang in the mean, or natural soprano range. The contratenor was sung by high tenors, not falsettists, with tenors and basses singing in what we would consider their normal ranges. Blue Heron’s fourteen male and female voices are divided among these five voice parts. Nevertheless, Metcalfe sought to make one thing clear: Blue Heron does not and cannot sound like a Tudor ensemble, and they do not attempt to reconstruct or recreate performance conditions from some five hundred years ago. For one thing, Tudor liturgical music was not presented to concert audiences, but heard rather as an ornament and enhancement of sacred ritual. For another, in church choirs women did not sing along with men. These days, at least in the United States, there is a scarcity of highly-trained boy singers, and the famed “English cathedral” sound may reflect 19th-century taste rather than 16th-century reality. Blue Heron seems to have found its own sound for this music. The ensemble has achieved a unanimity of intonation and articulation that still allows for the shaping of melodic lines through expressive dynamics and tempo changes, living proof that musicians who are also active as soloists can modify their vibrato and blend their voices in a precisely-tuned ensemble that prides itself on expressive rendition of the text.

Virginia Newes, who now lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

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