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Music Review

Sacred, seductive charms from Blue Heron choir

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / June 15, 2010

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CAMBRIDGE — In Gilles Binchois’s 15th-century chanson “Je ne vis oncques la pareille,’’ a suitor is so awestruck by his paramour that he confuses her with the Virgin Mary: “Is this Our Lady?’’ Blue Heron Renaissance Choir and director Scott Metcalfe made that hyperbole the inspired hub of their Saturday concert, tracing the song’s sacred recycling, quoted in numerous Marian compositions by Binchois’s contemporaries, illustrating the era’s porous boundaries between beloved idols and idolized beloveds.

The chanson itself — given a lovely sheen by singers Daniela Tosic, Aaron Sheehan, and Paul Guttry — proved ideal cover material, down to a catchy, bittersweet harmonic hook; works incorporating it also borrowed its ambiguously exalted affection. “Salve Regina’’ settings by Johannes Ghiselin and Pierre de la Rue alternated low-voice plainchant with ethereal fantasies on Binchois’s tune: a (male) prayer answered with courtly love from on high, a gilt-edged mixed message. Alexander Agricola’s velvety “Credo Je ne vis oncques la pareille’’ recast Christian belief as disciplined courtship, the gears of its structural clockwork turning with rich formality. Blue Heron’s performance emphasized the crossover, the choral sound pure and polished, both sacred and secular impulses seeming to ease into audibility with glass-smooth composure.

Heightened decorum suffused the program; even works outside the orbit of Binchois’s hit mashed up romantic ardor and religious devotion. In the Kyrie and Agnus Dei from Johannes Regis’s “Missa Ecce ancilla Domini,’’ the Mass’s ritual is interwoven with the tenors’ chant-derived settings of Mary’s Magnificat, making explicit a matriarchal subtext even when addressing the son. Johannes Ockeghem’s setting of “Alma redemptoris mater’’ was a solemn scaffold shot through with quick, joyously slinky riffs; the Kyrie and Gloria from his “Missa Ma maistresse’’ likewise drew seductive charm from its hidden ingredient, a chanson also by Ockeghem. In “Ma maistresse’’ itself — rendered with alabaster gloss by soprano Lydia Brotherton — when the singer refers to his inamorata as “The mortal enemy of my desire,’’ one got a sense of the sublimation working in all directions.

The concert’s one exception shifted inward. On the surface, Ockeghem’s “Intemerata Dei mater’’ fit the theme — it’s a plea for Marian mercy — but its focus on mortality made the emotion anomalously personal.

The plainchant quotations are here subsumed into dark waves of sound, swells churned up by life’s storms. Love might mean never having to say you’re sorry; but death (for Ockeghem, anyway) is another matter entirely.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.

BLUE HERON RENAISSANCE CHOIR Scott Metcalfe, director

“The Virgin and the Singer’’

At: First Church in Cambridge, Congregational, Friday