What praise at this point can a reviewer heap onto the reputation of the Renaissance choir Blue Heron? Under the inspired and historically extremely informed direction of Scott Metcalfe, Blue Heron describes itself as Renaissance music for the 21st century. What makes it so perfect for our time? The group is known, of course, for discovering and recovering works from the Renaissance. They make musical magic that touches the soul and speaks to the heart. Featuring both blend and clarity, their voices are ravishingly in tune. Each belongs to a first-class singer, or soloist as they like to describe themselves.
Saturday evening’s concert, in the usual venue of First Church in Cambridge, was the last of the season and presented 16th-century Spanish masters Francisco Guerrero (1528-’99) and Alonso Lobo (c. 1555-1617). Reginald Mobley, Martin Near, Jason McStoots, Mark Sprinkle, Paul Guttry, and Paul Max Tipton were the superb singers, and Charles Weaver, vihuela, Marilyn Boenau, dulcian and recorder, and Scott Metcalfe, violin, the polished instrumentals.
The program opened with unaccompanied voices singing Guerrero’s exuberant motet “Simile est regnum caelorum”, its text taken from Matthew 20, Jesus’s parable of the workers in the vineyard. The rest of the concert’s first half was devoted to the secular outpouring of songs from 16th-century Spain, starting with Guerrero’s lovely “Fresco y claro arroyuelo,” with three singers accompanied by vihuela. The villancico “Un Dolor tengo en el alma”, anonymous from 1556, was sung, unaccompanied and movingly, by Martin Near and Reginald Mobley. Next was a vihuela solo Fantasia, followed by “Quien dize quel Ausencia causa Olvidado” by Juan Vásquez (c. 1500- c.1560) with the anguished opening “He who says that absence causes forgetting / Deserves to be forgotten by all.” All entrancing, the songs had a changing cast of singers, usually accompanied by vihuela. “Quien amores tiene, como duerme?” by Vásquez has four men singing about a man who can’t sleep, as he loves a married woman. So much drama called for a palate cleanser, another vihuela solo, “Fantasia que contrahaze la harpe en la manera de Ludovico,” by Alonso Mudarra (c. 1510-1580), a piece often played by harpists.
Four more songs of love gone wrong followed, each a gem suffused with pathos and heartbreak. “Why do you seek remedies my heart? Suffer, because they are impossible” in a song by Juan Blas de Castro (c.1561-1631) earns itself a good backup band, violin, vihuela, and recorder, for its frustrations. Sung with urgency by four men, Bernal Gonçales’s (fl. 1550) “Navego en hono mar” with vihuela has a near-hysterical text about a poor soul whose life has gone really badly, who trembles when looking to the future and is filled with woe when remembering the past. Scott Metcalfe promises there will be more Spanish music in the future, and such songs’ tone notwithstanding, I couldn’t be happier about that: it has its own exquisite world of sound and, like its dancing, brims with of spirit and passion.
After intermission, we heard Alonso Lobo’s (c. 1555-1617) Marian antiphon, “Ave regina coelorum,” followed by a repeat of the Guerrero motet which had opened the program. Extremely prolific, Guerrero apparently composed a page of music for every day of his life, whereas Lobo, who very well might have studied with Guerrero in Seville, published only a single collection, the 1602 Liber primus missarum, with seven motets and six masses, all but one based on motets by Guerrero. Lobo’s “Missa Simile est regnum caelorum,” a sequel to Guerrero’s, featured a changing cast of singers (the bass doubled by a reedy dulcian). In the Lobos, Guerrero’s morphed into a so-called parody or imitation mass. I quote Metcalfe who describes this brilliantly.
In composing a mass one may borrow the inventions of a motet…. The composer of such a mass took the melodies and harmonies of his model and explored and reworked them…. Lobos’s mass fulfills the glowing promise of the motet (and its text) in abundance, unfolding in an endlessly captivating series of variations on Guerrero’s inventions. Like grace, the generosity of this music is infinite. Or, to use another simile, singing this mass is like going for repeated walks in a familiar landscape, in different seasons and in different weather…. We see (and hear) the same things again and again, but each time they appear in a new guise.
Be sure to hear Blue Heron on CD or next season, when they begin to explore the music of Johannes Ockeghem (c. 1420-1497).