CAMBRIDGE — Sacred and secular were, in the 15th century, not as oppositional as they seem today. Just consider the heavy yet heavenly figures of Italian Renaissance artist Piero della Francesca. Or the music of his Franco-Flemish contemporary, Johannes Ockeghem, as presented by the local Renaissance choir Blue Heron Saturday at the First Church in Cambridge, Congregational.
The title of Blue Heron’s program, “Divine Songs: Connections and Exchanges Between Secular Song and Sacred Music,” was deceptively simple. In the 15th century, it became common for composers to use secular songs as the basis for their Masses and motets. (The hit tune of the century, “L’homme armé,” turns up in more than 40 such settings.) Ockeghem used his own secular compositions as the basis for a number of his Masses, and Blue Heron allowed us to hear that by presenting first the parent song and then part of the Mass it gave birth to. Ockeghem’s “Ma maistresse” began the program and was followed by the Kyrie and Gloria from his Missa “Ma maistresse.” What’s more, the songs Blue Heron chose themselves mix sacred and secular. The “mistress” for whom the frustrated lover of “Ma maistresse” weeps could be a courtly lady, or she could be the Virgin Mary; the grief-stricken woman in “Fors seullement” might well be Mary addressing Jesus.
The presentation of the songs was a little problematic. Martin Near boasts a soft, sweet countertenor, and in “Ma maistresse” it registered to good effect against Jason McStoots’s tenor, with Blue Heron director Scott Metcalfe mediating between them on harp. But the piece lies so high that Near had limited success pointing the words. In “Fors seullement” he was overmatched by Pamela Dellal’s piercing mezzo-soprano, and in Gilles Binchois’s “De plus en plus” (the only non-Ockeghem piece on the program) by the medieval fiddles of Metcalfe and Laura Jeppesen. Tenors McStoots and Owen McIntosh and bass David McFerrin combined to make the best song of the night, “Presque transi,” a preternaturally quiet three-way conversation.
No reservations could attach to the performances of sections from Ockeghem’s Masses. You would, it’s true, need an alert ear to detect the melody of “Ma maistresse” in the bass line of its Mass’s Kyrie, or that of “Fors seullement” in the following Credo. But the lucidity of Ockeghem’s long-breathed and often surprising phrases was palpable. Metcalfe literally took a back seat, sitting off to the side and letting his eight singers weave their own tapestry. He and Jeppesen offered a pair of instrumental duets: Ockeghem’s countermelody to “O rosa bella” on medieval fiddles and an arrangement of his “D’ung aultre amer” with Metcalfe’s harp backing Jeppesen’s reedy rebec. Even with no words, this was heaven on earth.