Anyone expecting to hear the blended anonymity we usually hear in early music vocal groups must have been disconcerted at first hearing the sound of Blue Heron, a Boston-based ensemble which has swiftly made a name for itself in this genre. Two women and eight men, all with extensive early music credentials, came for a performance at St. James Cathedral in Seattle Saturday night, presented by the Early Music Guild. Two of the men were high countertenors, and several singers had distinctive voices.
Despite the bitter cold, a packed audience heard it sing music of “Advent and Christmas in Medieval England,” music mostly from the 13th to 15th centuries.
In darkness, the concert began with one lone male voice at the back of the cathedral, singing the familiar “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel,” gradually joined in successive verses by others. This was succeeded by a spotlight just on the small platform by the altar, on which were the group’s director, Scott Metcalfe, with a medieval harp, and one singer in another familiar carol, “Angelus ad virginem,” joined after by two more singers in another version of the same carol.
Though with lights up, the smooth transition from one carol to the next continued throughout the performance, with singers in different groupings singing from different sides of the altar, facing all four wings of the cathedral.
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Some was plainsong, which men of the group sang using rests and hesitations between phrases, but always attending to scholarly understanding of how this music might have been sung originally.
The carols that made up the rest of the program received vigorous, lively performances, how they might have been sung during the festive pageantry of Christmas. Sung in maybe two parts and a refrain in three parts, they were mostly in Latin mixed with medieval English. Other familiar carols which have come down to us over succeeding centuries, often reset by other composers in, to us, more familiar guise, included “Ther is no rose of swych vertu” and “Ecce quod natura.”
Blue Heron says in its notes that it’s “committed to performance that embodies the best of the early music movement, to learning as much as possible about historical practices and putting this knowledge at the service of vivid and imaginative performance in the present day.” It’s an excellent description of what went on at this refreshing concert, enthusiastically received, of music that embodied Christmas spirit.