Blue Heron at the Cloisters on Sunday, March 25.
When we picture ancient Greek statues, we see alabaster marble, solemn and immaculate, but writings from the time and—perhaps more to the point— archaeological investigations using ultraviolet light indicate that those statues were actually painted in bold, even garish colors that, to modern eyes, look far more kitschy than noble. As interesting as the historical re-creations are, it’s hard not to miss the mythologized statues we know better.
I admit I thought of those statues when I first read about Blue Heron, a Boston-based ensemble committed to performing fifteenth- and sixteenth-century choral music with the guidance of historical documents on how they were performed when first composed: not a capella but rather with a few brass instruments thrown into the mix. Did I really want to hear Josquin’s pure vocal sonorities tarnished by an early trombone? Perish the thought.
But my instinctive flinch was premature (not to mention ignorant, but let’s move on from that). Of course the instruments are still performing fifteenth- and sixteenth-century music, not the anachronistic slides and dissonant bleats I was hearing in my head, and they complemented the choir’s voices beautifully. Set in the re-created Fuentidueña Chapel, Blue Heron’s concert was not the unbearably academic, awkward program I had secretly, foolishly feared but rather a lovely musical revelation, taking what I adore about the familiar repertory and giving it new resonance.
That said, not every work on the program used instruments, and not every member of Blue Heron performed every work. In fact, most of the motets were performed with only one singer to a part. The standout was probably Jacob Obrecht’s rhythmically ornate “Salve crux,” which featured countertenor Martin Near singing the upper line with an eerie beauty and all five men following the contours of the lines with graceful musicianship.
Most of the Renaissance choral music I know is sacred—mass settings, sequences, and other works on liturgical texts—so the program’s secular selections, settings of passages from Virgil’s Aeneid, were a particular treat. The passages in question depict the demise of Dido, Queen of Carthage, a subject memorably depicted by Henry Purcell nearly two hundred years later, and though the Renaissance composers don’t indulge so much in Dido’s exquisite agony as the Baroque Purcell does, they do convey a elegantly wounded nobility. Jean Mouton’s agitated, melismatic “Dulcie exuvie” was probably my favorite, but Josquin’s “Fala, malum,” with its bewitching duets in the upper voices, was also quite affecting.
The final work on the program was Heinrich Isaac’s “Virgo prudentissima,” which, I believe, everyone in the choir sang, with the cornetto and trombone doubling some of the inner voices and unobtrusively rounding out the sound. Composed to celebrate the impending coronation of Maximilian, Isaac’s patron, as Holy Roman Empire, “Virgo” is a magnificent six-voice work, which Blue Heron performed with a magisterial radiance all their own. Superficially, the small Fuentidueña Chapel might seem too modest for some grandeur, but the room is so live and reverberant that the music transfigures the space to suit.