CAMBRIDGE — The program for Stile Antico’s Friday concert in the Boston Early Music Festival series was drawn from the group’s newest recording, “The Phoenix Rising.” It celebrates the publication in the 1920s of the iconic 10-volume collection “Tudor Church Music,” which rescued vast amounts of British sacred music from obscurity and made it available and performable. The concert deftly mixed the familiar — Byrd’s “Ave verum corpus” and Mass for Five Voices — with more obscure selections by Robert White and Thomas Weelkes.
The concert was something of a milestone: It marked the 50th US concert by this profusely talented British ensemble. It was significant, too, that it happened in the BEMF series, since it was in the 2009 festival that Stile Antico made its American debut. That they have become regular visitors to this early-music center is testimony to the lofty esteem in which they’re held here.
For all that, Friday’s performance was the first time I can remember hearing the group at less than its finest. They seemed surprisingly unsettled at the beginning: entrances were patchy, the intonation occasionally uncertain, the sound slightly rougher than expected. This was audible most clearly in “Ave verum corpus” and the Credo of the Mass. These were not glaring deficiencies; the group just sounded somewhat more earthbound than usual.
For whatever reason, the imperfections happened mostly in the concert’s first half; after intermission Stile Antico reverted to its more familiar, glorious, form. The second half led off with a meltingly beautiful rendition of White’s “Christe qui lux es” which showed extraordinary unity. Working without a conductor, Stile Antico has the ESP of a chamber ensemble — you can hear them anticipate each other’s movements. Gibbons’s “Hosanna to the Son of David” had the lightness of a madrigal, its imitative writing exuding playfulness. The dark, clotted sound of Thomas Tallis’s “In ieiunio et fletu” was the ideal precursor for the blazing light of Weelkes’s “Gloria in excelsis Deo.”
It was the Agnus Dei of Byrd’s Mass and John Taverner’s “O splendor gloriae” that gave the fullest account of what Stile Antico can do. Each had the group’s unique sound, which balances richness and clarity and varies color and texture in sync with the text. Both were meticulously paced, building logically to a conclusion either hushed and intimate (Byrd) or virtuosic and thrilling (Taverner). They were brilliantly realized, both technically and expressively.
The single encore was Tallis’s communion anthem “O sacrum convivium.” A packed house seemed anxious for the next visit.