CAMBRIDGE — Christmas privileges traditions, the older the better, anchors for what can be the most frantic of holidays. Blue Heron, Scott Metcalfe’s agile and refined early-music choir, can certainly invoke history: Their Friday Christmas concert at First Church in Cambridge focused on 15th-century France and Burgundy, a venerably rich repertoire. It’s a program the group has presented, with slight variations, in years past, and one revived, as Metcalfe noted in the program book, with the hope of communicating the joy of singing it again, here, now. But it also traded on the allure of Christmases (long) past.
A sense of archaic ritual, for instance, informed both staging and music. A gradual brightening from dim candlelight to a fully illuminated church marked the procession from Advent to Christmas. Jacob Obrecht’s “Factor orbis” and Josquin Desprez’s “O virgo virginum” were ceremonially announced by the chant melodies around which each motet wove its counterpoint. A hymn (“Conditor alme siderum”) and a sequence (“Letabundus”) by Guillaume Du Fay alternated verses between upstage circles singing plainchant and downstage trios offering ornate embellishment.
By definition, the Christmas evoked could feel closer to the historical source, preempting centuries of sentimentalization and commercialization for something purer. The choir’s sheer proficiency contributed to that sense: straight-tone clarity and diction polished to a confident glaze that seemed far removed from the everyday. Metcalfe even made programmatic commentary about presents fine and fleeting with a set of estraines, songs commissioned for French royal courts, given as New Year’s gifts alongside extravagant objets d’art. The objects were nearly all perished; the wryly elegant musical expressions of courtly love survived.
The evening’s main feature, though, was a poised profusion. Beyond the estraines and a couple older works (Johannes Ciconia’s robustly striking “Gloria” and an encore, the frisky carol “Laudemus cum armonia”), the prevailing style was labyrinthine, texts and musical lines layered as to resist parsing. The contrapuntal intricacy of Adrian Willaert’s “Prater rerum serium” collated varied angles surrounding the mystery of the Nativity (“who can comprehend such a birth?”). An anonymous “Hodie puer nascitur” from (then) French-controlled Cyprus went further: a dense, manifold setting of a text saturated with theological dualities — light and darkness, word and flesh, mortal and divine, “the multiple grace of separate parts.” The singers serenely reveled in such centrifugal discourse. It embodied the season’s most elusive promise: that the contradictory and incomprehensible world might somehow be made harmonious.