Springtime in Europe, from an inspired pairing
CAMBRIDGE — I can’t remember a program as appealing as the one local Renaissance choir Blue Heron and New York–based viol consort Parthenia presented Saturday at the First Church in Cambridge, Congregational. “Chants de Printemps: Songs for Spring & Other Seasons From 16th-Century France & the Low Countries” looked innocent enough as a title, but the subject matter encompassed trilling nightingales, ducks diving delightedly, a disconsolate girl whose parents had sent her to a convent, a mysterious girl who spins whatever God gives her, a disappointed girl who can’t get her barley well ground by the miller, and the usual complement of forlorn lovers. It even ended with settings of Psalms from the Genevan Psalter.
What makes Blue Heron and Parthenia (whom Blue Heron director Scott Metcalfe thanked for proposing the collaboration) such good partners is the value both outfits place on clarity and expressiveness. Whether it’s a tapestry of voices or instruments, every thread is palpable. But there’s nothing abstract about their performances, which ebb and flow with human feeling.
Representing Blue Heron on this chilly evening (the first section of the program was, almost prematurely, called “Spring at last”) were Shari Wilson, Martin Near, Owen McIntosh, Jason McStoots, Michael Barrett, and Paul Guttry, all in superb form. Parthenia, which was joined by guests Emily Walhout on viol and Hank Heijink on lute, began with Claude Le Jeune’s sprightly “Debat la noste trill’ en May” (“Beneath the latticed vine in May”), and the singers followed with Le Jeune’s harmonically sumptuous “Revecy venir du printans” (“Behold the return of spring”), in which Cupid seeds the universe with his arrows.
The idea behind the various sections of the program was to juxtapose different settings of the same text, or a song with instrumental compositions that riffed on its melody. Heijink began “A girl in a convent” with a delicate solo rendering of an Albert de Rippe fantaisie and then accompanied, discreetly, a wistful McStoots in the anonymous “Une jeune fillette,” whose subject, “a young girl of noble heart,” bewails her fate in the convent, “where there is not any joy,” and thinks of the faithful lover from whom she was torn away. Parthenia then played four fantaisies by Eustache Du Caurroy that constituted a set of variations on the tune of “La jeune fillette.” In the beautiful slow third fantaisie, the interweaving viols sounded like human voices expressing the girl’s anguish.
The selections from the Genevan Psalter were as passionate as anything else on the program. Blue Heron sang the first two verses of Psalm 137, “By the waters of Babylon we sat and wept,” in unison, transporting us momentarily to a monastery, before going on to four richly elaborated settings. After a lively Claude Le Jeune branle (a French dance whose name Metcalfe translated as “brawl”) and the sly “Tue ne l’enten pas, c’est Latin” (“You don’t understand it, it’s Latin,” the splendid evening closed with Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd,” which acted as a benediction.