“The beating heart of early music in America.” That’s how the storied Orlando Consort described Boston in the last update to its website before its final concerts as a touring and recording group. Wednesday night at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall heralded the end of an era in Renaissance vocal music, as the United Kingdom-based ensemble visited the Boston Early Music Festival to offer its long-planned last performance under the Orlando name after 35 years together.
For its swan song, Orlando rolled out not the retrospective “Adieu” program it performed several times on its farewell tour, but one of its signature offerings: “Voices Appeared,” an a cappella soundtrack to Carl Dreyer’s landmark 1928 film “La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc.” With the hall darkened to screen the film and the only other light coming from the black-clad singers’ music stands, the musicians were all but invisible, but their artistry was unmistakable throughout their gracious and unpretentious farewell.
It’s been said that Dreyer was never thoroughly satisfied with any of the music he heard paired with his film, especially the array of Bach and Vivaldi that accompanied a 1951 re-release. We’ll never know what Dreyer may have made of Orlando Consort’s efforts, but if this concert couldn’t placate him, I doubt anything could have. “Voices Appeared” was devised in 2015 by Orlando founding baritone and film scholar Donald Greig, who assembled a bespoke lineup of little-known French and English music from around the lifetime of Joan of Arc to accompany the silent film.
As the film cut between its signature closeup shots of Renee Falconetti’s tear-stained visage as Joan and the leering, snarling faces of her interrogators, the consort’s musical commentary emphasized Joan’s humanity and faith in the face of death. The ancient past felt terrifyingly close as I watched with the knowledge that the music was composed around Joan’s short lifetime, and she may even have heard some of it.
Then the lights came up, the four Orlando core members and one fifth singer added for the program took their final bow, and the finish line was crossed. Two of the original four members had remained with the group for the long haul, and it makes sense that the group should choose to dissolve rather than end up in a ship-of-Theseus situation, but its absence will be deeply felt.
Thursday evening’s primetime concert featured the temporary merger of Belgian vocal ensemble Vox Luminis and the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra, performing two Baroque heavyweight pieces: first Handel’s cantata “Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day,” then Bach’s evergreen “Magnificat.” Standing on a raised platform surrounding the orchestra during the “Ode,” the chorus (10 singers, plus five locals to pad out some sections of the music) sounded cooly evenhanded, almost omniscient, in contrast to the ecstatic noise of the instruments below. As the text namechecked individual instruments, they each took the spotlight. Cellist Phoebe Carrai’s winding, whirling solo representing the lyre was glorious, and baroque trumpeter Justin Bland responded to tenor Florian Sievers’s call to arms with immaculate intonation. The “Magnificat” sounded oddly stiff in some places but glowed otherwise.
That concert felt like an outlier: chestnuts in a schedule otherwise full of deep cuts. Wednesday also included the first exposure for me (and likely many other listeners) to the music of Mexican 17th-century composer Juan de Lienas, which was performed by Chicago’s Newberry Consort in the 5 p.m. slot at Emmanuel Church. At the 10:30 concert at Jordan, the Europe-based Sollazzo Ensemble introduced songs contained in the Leuven Chansonnier, a songbook from around 1475 that was sold at auction in Europe in 2014 and was then found to contain several unattributed never-before-seen songs. Taking center stage during “Henri phlippet,” a surprisingly explicit tirade against an unfaithful lover written from a woman’s point of view, the somewhat wild edge of soprano Carine Tinney’s burnished voice evoked the scrawled hand of the composer found in the original manuscript.
Thursday evening’s late-night concert by Germany-based Hamburger Ratsmusik was all joy, as the trio of viola da gamba, theorbo (long-necked lute), and harpsichord teamed up with sopranos Dorothee Mields and Kerstin Dietl to present a portrait of the 17th-century maverick Venetian composer Barbara Strozzi. Recently there has been a revival of interest in the evocative and surprisingly chromatic music by Strozzi, who was the rare woman composer of the age to be neither a nun nor the recipient of royal patronage. She could not have asked for a better advertisement than this performance, which temporarily banished any drowsiness that may have otherwise set in as midnight approached.
The festival continues through Sunday afternoon, with events at Jordan Hall and the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre.
BOSTON EARLY MUSIC FESTIVAL
At Jordan Hall June 7 and 8. www.bemf.org