CAMBRIDGE — Devotees of Handel’s “Messiah” certainly need not fear that the ritualized holiday performances of this beloved work will be displaced anytime soon. But a host of alternative seasonal concert traditions have taken root locally in recent years. One of them is Blue Heron’s “Christmas in Medieval England,” which the choir has been presenting biennially, this year in three local performances at First Church, plus an additional performance in Seattle’s St. James Cathedral, where an audience of 1,000 turned out to hear it earlier this month.
Among the program’s selling points is not, refreshingly, the ubiquity or popularity of the repertoire on offer. John Dunstaple and Leonel Power were leading English composers of the early 15th century, figures whose innovations crossed the Channel and proved highly influential on the continent of Europe. But their works today are still heard far less frequently than those of contemporaries such as Guillaume Dufay.
This particular program, assembled by Blue Heron’s director Scott Metcalfe, features Annunciation music by both composers alongside Mass sections appropriate for Christmas Day by other anonymous English musicians. The entire mixture is leavened by gems from the English carol repertoire of the same period. Viewed on paper, it might still seem an unlikely holiday crowd-pleaser, but over the years, the earthy sensuousness of Blue Heron’s singing coupled with the curatorial care behind its programming have clearly earned the trust of audiences.
These qualities were again in evidence on Friday night at First Church. The evening began in darkness with members of the choir gathered by the candlelit altar, lofting the hymn “Veni, veni, Emanuel” before turning to approach the audience. The first half also concluded in darkness with another hymn, “Veni redemptor gencium.”
In between, the 10 Blue Heron singers assembled in various configurations, with Metcalfe accompanying several selections on a modern reproduction of a medieval harp. Daniela Tosic’s warmth of tone and forthright delivery brought a sense of occasion to the 13th-century monophonic song “Angelus ad virginem,” and five male singers savored the wild rhythms and almost outlandish dissonances of a remarkable Gloria by Power. The account of Dunstaple’s motet “Gaude virgo salutata” might have benefited from a similar sharpness of focus, but over all the performances rarely departed from Blue Heron’s typical high standard. On the second half, another Gloria (by Pycard) stood out for its elegance of construction, with seven voices spinning an intricate web of sound.
The more consonant and gently ingratiating medieval carols sprinkled throughout the night warmly offset the austere grandeur of some of the larger-scale works. One final carol, “Nova, nova,” was offered as an encore and sung with a heraldic vibrancy that made this birth announcement from the 15th century feel like today’s news.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.