Riveting performances that draw listeners into the beauty and wonder of late medieval and Renaissance polyphony are what audiences have come to expect from Blue Heron. Heard on Saturday night in Cambridge at the First Church, Congregational, they did not disappoint. The fourth in the group’s ambitious series “Ockeghem@600” presenting the ca. 1420-1497 Flemish composer’s complete works over seven seasons, the program centered on the cyclic Mass Ecce ancilla domini, interspersed with shorter sacred and secular works. Singing without a conductor, the eight Blue Heron singers included mezzo Pamela Dellal, countertenor Martin Near, tenors Owen McIntosh, Mark Sprinkle, Sumner Thompson, and Jason McStoots, baritone David McFerrin and bass-baritone Paul Guttry. In the absence of mezzo Margaret Lias, Dellal and Near filled in alternately on the cantus parts. Much as they would have been in Ockeghem’s time, all are accomplished soloists, adept in the singing of complex ensemble polyphony. Music director Scott Metcalfe has skillfully melded their voices into well-blended ensembles, mostly one-on-a-part, that relies on precise tuning and rhythmic coordination without losing the identity of individual melodic lines.
Ockeghem’s brief devotional motet for four voices on the familiar Ave Maria text, was sung by Near, Sprinkle, McStoots, and McFerrin. Frequent duetting between treble and tenor, either in parallel motion in similar note values or in brief declamatory imitations at the beginnings of phrases, enhanced the equal-voiced texture. A three-voice setting of the same text by Ockeghem’s close contemporary Johannes Regis followed. Performance of Regis’s five-voice setting of the long sequence text, Ave Maria . . . virgo serena, was only made possible by the completion by musicologist Theodor Dumitrescu of the fifth voice, missing in the motet’s only source. Rather than a slow-note cantus firmus, Dumitrescu’s reconstructed voice is a mid-range alto part that participates in the imitative structures of the other voices. Upper and lower voice pairs exchange the same music back and forth, reflecting the repetitions in the sequence text. Apart from the tenor, references to the original chant can also be heard frequently in the other voices, in phrases that open with straight quotations in equal notes and then continue in lightly ornamented free paraphrase.
The central work, Ockeghem’s Missa, Ecce ancilla domini is based on another Marian chant melody, the antiphon Missus est angelus Gabriel a deo in civitatem Nazareth. Ockeghem employed only the final section as a tenor cantus firmus: Ecce ancilla domini, fiat michi secundum verbum tuum, Alleluya (Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word). In the beautifully illustrated Chigi manuscript, copied around 1500 in the Low Countries, the chant text is inscribed in the tenor part whenever it quotes the melody literally. Ockeghem treated the melody quite freely, manipulating the order of chant phrases and inserting additional notes, particularly at the approach to cadences, as well as transposing it down a fifth into the bass range in the Credo. Although such artifices are hardly apparent to most listeners, they will have been very real to the composer and probably also to the singers in the royal chapel. More readily discernible are the shifts from triple to duple meter at the beginnings of major sections, resulting in a four-in-the-time-of-three speeding up of the pulse, brief imitations at the beginnings of phrases, and occasional bits of word painting such as the rising sequence on the words “Et ascendit in celum” (And he ascended into heaven) in the Credo. In each section, extended duets before the entry of the cantus firmus allowed us to savor both the extraordinary rhythmic variety of Ockeghem’s supple melodic lines and the precise tonal control displayed by the Blue Heron singers.
A French-texted song by Antoine Busnoys (ca. 1430-92) introduced a younger contemporary and associate of Ockeghem’s who served the French royal court and later the Burgundian court as singer and composer. “Ma demoiselle, ma maistresse” (My fair lady, my mistress) is a rondeau cinquain with a five-line refrain set to two sections of music. Because the first section of this “fixed form,” ending on an antecedent half-cadence, is repeated three times before the return of the conclusive second section and the restatement of the entire refrain, the impression is one of repeatedly denied resolution. The wide-ranging cantus was beautifully sung by Martin Near in duet with Owen McIntosh on the contratenor, the two parts sometimes engaging in brief imitations that articulated line openings. The supporting tenor was supplied by Scott Metcalfe on a medieval fiddle. Unascribed in its only source, a French songbook copied ca. 1465-1470s, attribution of the five-voice motet-chanson “Permanent vierge” (Permanent virgin) to Ockeghem has been strongly supported in an article by Sean Gallagher. Here a three-voice rondeau in praise of the Virgin Mary is assigned to the cantus, alto, and bass parts, while one tenor sings the melody and text of the antiphon “Pulchra es et decora” (Fair and comely art thou) from the Song of Songs, and the other sings the antiphon “Sancta Dei genitrix virgo semper Maria” (Holy mother of God, ever-virgin Mary). Written sideways in the margin is the first line of another antiphon, its text taken from the Revelation of St. John: “Mulier amicta sole et luna sub pedibus eius” ([And there appeared a great wonder in heaven]; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet). Elements of all three Latin texts are glossed in the rondeau text, Ockeghem’s jagged and often syncopated cantus (Martin Near) joining in a supple duet with the high contratenor (Jason McStoots).
The final movements of the Mass followed. After the “wordy” Gloria and Credo, the Sanctus seemed concise, almost airy by contrast. Pamela Dellal and Jason McStoots sang the long upper-voice duet with finesse; they were joined by bassus Paul Guttry and, returning to the first section of the cantus firmus, tenor Owen McIntosh. The tenor dropped out in the “Pleni sunt celi,” which featured an opening duet for alto and bass. The simultaneous entry of all four voices on “Osanna” in the faster duple meter was suitably dramatic. “Benedictus” was another unaccompanied duet for Near and McStoots, a quiet and freely imitative passage before the return of the exuberant “Osanna.” The Agnus Dei’s overall plan was similar to that of the Sanctus: (Agnus I) opening duet (Near and McIntosh), entry of the tenor (Sprinkle) and bassus (McFerrin); (Agnus II) upper-voice duet (Dellal and McIntosh); (Agnus III) shift to duple meter and simultaneous entry of all four voices.
In an informal pre-concert talk, Professor Sean Gallagher of the New England Conservatory of Music, a specialist in 15th-century music and adviser to the project, outlined what is known of Ockeghem’s long career in the service of the French royal court. Gallagher sought to counter the composer’s somewhat distorted reputation as an inscrutable mystic and master of contrapuntal puzzles by offering an appreciation of the composer’s skillfully wrought melodic lines that interweave in dense polyphony; there is indeed complexity, but carefully thought-out and far from irrational. Additional historical information on Ockeghem and his time came in the handsomely produced program book, along with full texts and translations. In their concerted effort to win new audiences for Ockeghem’s music, Scott Metcalfe and Blue Heron would seem to have discovered a winning formula: vivid and historically informed performances by highly accomplished singers, buttressed by solid scholarship in lively presentation.