CAMBRIDGE — Sacred music doesn’t have to be less complex, less turbulent, than its secular counterpart. In the works of Anton Bruckner, to cite just one example, it’s not easy to separate sacred from secular. The Cantata Singers underlined that point Friday evening at the First Church, Congregational, in “Divining the Incandescent,” a program that included two Bruckner motets, as well as Herbert Howells’s Requiem and Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir.
A lifelong Catholic, Bruckner never hesitated to look into the abyss, or take his music there. His “Pange Lingua” (1868) adopts the medieval Phrygian mode, the white keys of the piano starting on E; it doesn’t resolve into E major till the final chord. “Christus Factus Est” (1884), whose first line is “Christ became obedient for us unto death,” becomes disobedient to normal harmonies on the word “obedient,” and the three notes of “death” undergo an improbable, unsettling passage from A-flat major through B-flat minor to C major.
Cantata Singers music director David Hoose paid tribute to these works’ plain-chant heritage, weighting every syllable, pointing every harmonic progression, giving every rest ample room, making the performance of a Bruckner motet seem easier than it really is. The singing was well balanced from top (no shrillness) to bottom (firm and earthy); enunciation was exemplary.
I had never heard the Howells or the Martin live; my expectation from recordings was that they’d be anticlimactic after the Bruckner, but that wasn’t the case here. Both pieces begin in the same enigmatic Phrygian mode, which turned out to be the evening’s theme. Howells’s Requiem, completed in 1936 but not performed till 1980, mixes sections in English, including Psalms 23 and 121, with two versions of the “Requiem aeternam dona eis” from the Latin Requiem Mass. The first “lux perpetua” — “perpetual light” — was a somber, vibrating mystery; the second, after dappled light, was a sunburst. The seven soloists were secure and serene.
Martin’s Mass for Double Choir (1922/1926) was even better. This austere early work from a Swiss descendant of French Huguenots hovers between medieval mode and harmonic resolution. In the antiphonal Kyrie, the singers might have been stars calling to one another; in the Gloria, too, sound seemed to come from everywhere before it settled into the pastoral siciliana of the “Gratias agimus tibi” and the sober severity of the “Domine Deus.” The Credo offered a “Crucifixus” that was a wailing agony and then a whispered “Resurrexit” that spread like wildfire. The performance built to the Sanctus, a mystical rustling of angel wings, and then descended into the Agnus Dei, the wings folded, resting, at peace.