An evening titled “A Hilliard Songbook” could encompass just about anything. The Hilliard Ensemble, which formed in 1974, taking its name from the Elizabethan miniaturist painter Nicholas Hilliard, focuses on medieval and Renaissance music, but it has also performed contemporary compo-sers such as Arvo Pärt and John Cage. The group crossed over into the pop charts with its 1994 CD “Officium,” on which it collaborated with Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek in an imaginative meditation on early composers like Pierre de la Rue and Cristóbal de Morales. Its CD devoted to 12th-century French composer Pérotin clarifies his influence on 20th-century composers like Steve Reich.
At Emmanuel Church Friday evening, in a concert that was part of the Boston Early Music Festival, the Hilliard’s core group — countertenor David James, tenors Rogers Covey-Crump and Steven Harrold, and baritone Gordon Jones — put the emphasis on “early.” The first half of the program reveled in settings of Petrarch’s “Canzoniere,” in which the 14th-century Italian poet wrote of his unrequited love for a married woman of Avignon named Laura. The second ranged from three 12th-century hymns by Saint Godric of Finchale to liturgical music from Kiev and Armenia, ending with Pérotin’s four-part Christmas gradual “Viderunt omnes.”
The Petrarch settings ranged from Guillaume Dufay to lesser-knowns such as Cipriano de Rore and Bernardo Pisano. The emphasis throughout was on the interweaving of vocal lines rather than the text — which is appropriate when the text makes the beloved a vehicle for the poet’s grief. And few ensembles interweave like the Hilliard — which is not surprising given that James, Covey-Crump, and Jones have been in the core group since 1990 and Harrold joined in 1998. The quartet’s sound is pellucid, if a shade dry, and enunciation is crisp; it’s the singing of men rather than angels. I liked the sad richness they brought to Jacques Arcadelt’s “Tutt’il dí piango” (“All day I weep”), with its firm statement of “this death that they call life.” The final setting, Giaches de Wert’s “O cameretta” (“O little room”), ended with the line “I have such fear of finding myself alone,” the last word of which, “solo,” James sang solo.
The second half offered more variety, with the singers trading solos on Godric’s three hymns, the earliest songs in English whose melodies survive, and then James and Covey-Crump engaging in a dialogue with Harrold and Jones — high voices against low — in Sheryngham’s 15th-century carol “Ah! Gentle Jesu.” Jones’s solo on an anonymous “Otche nash” (“Our Father”) sounded oddly un-Slavonic; better were the unearthly harmonies of the Armenian Sanctus arranged by Komitas. Best of all was the encore, “Holy Mother of God,” which Pärt composed for the Hilliard in 2003; it exploded with feeling.