Passion and Resurrection Motets of the Renaissance

Pomerium at the Cloisters on Saturday, April 11.

Now that I no longer spend my Sundays working as a church organist, I make it a point to go to a seasonally appropriate concert each Easter weekend. Two years ago, it was Bach’s St. John Passion, and last year, it was a program of liturgically timely Renaissance motets, performed by Pomerium. This year, too, Sean and I trekked up to the Cloisters to hear the early music choir sing the works of Gesualdo and Monteverdi and Byrd and others.

Pomerium truly is an amazing ensemble: beautiful tone, beautiful blend, and an impeccable understanding of the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century works in which they specialize. Their clear, round voices perfectly articulate the polyphonic lines, and their sonorous unisons enfold you with their warmth.

The small Fuentidueña Chapel is the perfect venue for this type of music, composed centuries ago to be sung and heard beneath stone arches just like those at the Cloisters. In a dead, cavernous hall, the bare, unaccompanied motets can feel small and thin, but with each note reverberating against stone, each final note lingering for a few precious seconds after release, the music finds full life.

That, in fact, is what’s particularly special about Pomerium’s annual Passion and Resurrection concert: the way it restores the music in its native habitat, among the art and architecture and religious iconography of its own time. Gesualdo’s “Tenebrae factae sunt” has more weight underneath a monumental medieval crucifix, and Byrd’s “In resurrectione tua” achieves full expression with sunlight streaming in through the narrow windows of a Gothic apse. The music and setting illuminate and elevate each other—a glorious union.