CAMBRIDGE - Boston has a well-earned reputation as an exceptional early-music town. Even so, last weekend was unusual for the abundance of choral talent on display. Friday saw a performance by Blue Heron, the city’s own outstanding early-music vocal group, while the Tallis Scholars - for many years the standard-bearers in this repertory - were due for a Saturday concert in the Boston Early Music Festival series.
One of Blue Heron’s hallmarks is the deep resplendence of its sound. So it was interesting that the concert featured mostly smaller ensembles from the group’s 11 singers. Music director Scott Metcalfe conducted only three works. If other programs seemed orchestral in their sonic glory, this one seemed like an intimate chamber-music concert.
Metcalfe’s programs are always steeped in history. Friday’s drew selections from four 16th-century manuscripts containing music written for Emperor Maximilian I and his daughter, Marguerite of Austria. A motet by Josquin des Prez got the evening off to a graceful, transparent start. Rather than sing a cappella, as it usually does, the ensemble was discreetly accompanied by Michael Collver on cornetto and Mack Ramsey on trombone.
Heinrich Isaac’s “O Maria, mater Christi’’ was more complex and involving. Its tone is dark and rounded, and the eight Blue Heron singers showed off their rhythmic acuity, as well as the clarity they could get from a concentration of voices in the lower range. Ludwig Senfl’s “Beati omnes’’ demonstrated careful attention to textual details. Both sounded lovely, a few unsettled moments aside.
In a masterful bit of programming, Metcalfe included four different settings of “Dulces exuvie,’’ a pathos-filled text drawn from Dido’s final words in Virgil’s “Aeneid.’’ Johannes Ghiselin’s was lush and majestic, a kind of smiling-through-tears lament. Alexander Agricola’s was more restrained yet captured the dramatic flow of the text. Jean Mouton’s was austere and inward-focused, and featured some unusual harmonic turns. Josquin’s was the most florid, with cascading runs of notes and an ambiguous ending.
With a text that at points seemed like a theology lecture, Jacob Obrecht’s “Salve crux’’ offered dense counterpoint and asymmetrical rhythms, all of which was surprisingly lucid. Its ending was as rapt and powerful as anything I have heard this group do. There were also two instrumental pieces, with Metcalfe on vielle - an early fiddle - joining Collver and Ramsey.
The whole group came together only at the end for Isaac’s “Virgo prudentissima,’’ and the effect of the full weight of the chorus’s sound was like the sun finally breaking free of the clouds. “Virgo prudentissima’’ is a lengthy piece, and the group repeated about half of it as an encore. (It does mean “again,’’ after all.) While the first version was fine, the second seemed more assured, more intense, and more colorful - this group at its best, in other words.
David Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.