Saturday at First Church in Cambridge, Congregational, Blue Heron gave the fourth concert in its “Ockeghem@600” series, in which the choir is aiming, by 2021, to perform the entire surviving output of the 15th-century Belgian composer whom Blue Heron music director Scott Metcalfe puts up there with Johann Sebastian Bach. At 35 minutes, the evening’s centerpiece, Johannes Ockeghem’s “Missa Ecce ancilla Domini,” might not have the gravitas of, say, Bach’s B-minor Mass or “St. Matthew Passion,” but it’s no less ingenious or beautiful.
Ockeghem based his “Missa Ecce ancilla Domini” on a relatively obscure Advent antiphon, “Missus est angelus Gabriel,” which begins the Annunciation story, in Luke, of how the angel Gabriel was sent to tell Mary that she had been chosen to give birth to Jesus. Mary answered, “Ecce ancilla Domini” — “I am the handmaid of the Lord” — and that is the part of the antiphon that Ockeghem chose for his cantus firmus.
Singing one voice to a part, Blue Heron brought a crystalline, occasionally astringent clarity to this four-part Mass. The performance was warm and dry, not always as rich as some, but the text was fully intelligible (not a given in this music) and the dizzying complexity of Ockeghem’s writing was transparent. The Kyrie began with the voices imitating a flutter of angel wings, as if to depict Gabriel’s arrival. In the “Christe eleison,” Mary seemed to speak before benedictions rained down upon her; the return of the “Kyrie eleison” brought fear but also reassurance. The remainder of the Mass took its cue from Mary’s answer: equal parts humility and radiant confidence.
Because of illness, Margaret Lias had to drop out of the performance; she was replaced, at short notice and very capably, by Pamela Dellal, but the substitution prompted Metcalfe to omit the Ockeghem song “Il ne m’en chault plus de nul ame,” which he promised will appear later in the series. There was still much to enjoy. Settings of the “Ave Maria” by Ockeghem and Johannes Regis and Ockeghem’s song “Permanent vierge” fleshed out the Annunciation theme; the lone outlier was Antoine Busnoys’s “Ma damoiselle, ma maistresse,” a song of unrequited love. As with the Mass, each group of performers sang with, and to, one another; you could pick out every strand while appreciating how they all fit together. Blue Heron is also aiming to record Ockeghem’s entire surviving output; the first release can’t come too soon.
Ockeghem@600: Missa Ecce ancilla Domini
Presented by Blue Heron. At First Church in Cambridge, Congregational, Oct. 15
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.