Blue Heron are a multivalent group. Here they sing with two or three voices to a part, using adult trebles for the top ones, as is customary in this repertory. Their tone and approach is more reminiscent of English ensembles than most mixed American choirs I can think of (more full-bodied than Pomerium, for example, or even some English groups one could name). As the final volume of a long-term project, it is right that this should count among the most polished, but I suspect that their sound may take some listeners by surprise. At full stretch there isn’t a weak link from top to bottom, and at their best (that is, usually) the trebles stand comparison with those of far better-known ensembles either side of the Atlantic: try the Mass that forms the centrepiece here.
By and large the series has focused on music whose performance is only possible through Sandon’s ministrations. Among the high points of previous installments are three antiphons by Hugh Aston (Vol 1), Nicholas Ludford’s Missa Regnum mundi and a Salve regina by Richard Pygott (Vol 2). Those names will be familiar to aficionados of this repertory, but here the focus is on figures who are either really obscure or actually nameless. Don’t let that put you off: the Mass in particular is superb. Whoever wrote it almost certainly knew Taverner’s Gloria tibi Trinitas, for echoes of it abound, yet it is no slavish imitation. For this piece alone the disc is worth owning. The confident rendition of Hugh Sturmy’s Exultet in hac die sets the tone and the more extended Ve nobis miseris by John Mason gives the male voices a chance to show off, but in the Mass things get seriously impressive. I doubt whether I’ll be alone in thinking this one of the discoveries of the year.
The superb vocalists progress from Advent to Christmas Day, switching easily between Latin and Old English, building a collection of music that might have been heard in the 1440s.
A listener then would have been lucky to hear these works brought off with such panache. The program is by turns pensive and lively, and the scholarship required to evoke stylistic accuracy is put totally at the service of performance. There’s a deeply affecting edge to the singing, whether in an atmospheric account of the still-familiar “Veni, Veni Emanuel,” or the glorious, elevated Sanctus from the anonymous “Missa Veterem Hominem.”
Blue Heron’s qualities include transparency of tone without the perception of too much intellectually imposed constraint. In other words, their performances are highly enjoyable. Masterpieces such as Mon cuer me fait tous dis penser have a sense of freedom and airy lightness which is very appealing, with all of those delicious moments savoured without being overly lingered upon. There is a lot of individual colour between the voices in this ensemble, but somehow it all works splendidly. Timbres are allowed to emerge from the music with a natural feel but have also been carefully considered. You don’t sense it as effort, but a lot of work has gone into creating these sounds, and I for one feel privileged to be able to revel in such a subtly shaped set of performances.
Collectively this is a very fine programme. The risk with such an endeavour is that things start to sound too much the same from beginning to end, but this is the kind of recording that makes you sit up and pay attention – here from a moment of beautiful stillness, there from some sparing notes from an instrument or a special antiphonal effect – there is plenty that is memorable here, and always the anticipation of something juicy to relish just around the corner. You can’t ask much more than that from a CD.
Metcalfe’s small choir, recorded live, allows the music’s sweetness, its modest sense of joy, to speak for itself.
CD Hot List: “Rick’s Pick”
And stepping back even further in time…, we have yet another in the Blue Heron choir’s growing list of brilliant releases. Featuring 15th-century works by John Dunstaple, Leonel Power, and a variety of anonymous composers, this music is more astringent and austere-sounding than the lush polyphony of Stile Antico’s program, but the singing is every bit as skillful and there’s actually a higher density of familiar Christmas melodies here: “Veni, veni, Emanuel,” “Hayl Mary, Ful of Grace,” “Nowel: Owt of Your Sleep Aryse,” etc. In fact, in its variety and energy this album reminds me of the best Christmas recordings of another legendary Boston early-music ensemble, the Boston Camerata. Very highly recommended.
Christmas in Medieval England: “Strongly Recommended”
Fourth Peterhouse CD: “Sweet and burnished tone”
Like a glass of cool water after a long walk in the desert, the fourth installment… of music from the Peterhouse Partbooks is finally here. And like its predecessors, this one presents gorgeous and previously-unheard music by practically unknown composers, all sung with the sweet and burnished tone and colorful but seamless blend that are Blue Heron’s hallmark. No classical collection can afford to pass up any disc in this series.
Alex Ross: Jones makes “canny use of musical space”, while Blue Heron’s singing is “immaculate and alive”
The superb Boston-based choir Blue Heron have released Music from the Peterhouse Partbooks, vol. 4, featuring works of Robert Jones, Nicholas Ludford, and Robert Hunt in reconstructions by Nick Sandon. Almost nothing is known about Jones (fl. 1520-35), yet his Missa Spes nostra is, as Scott Metcalfe writes in his notes, the “unique creation of a mature composer with a distinct individual voice.” Flowing vocal lines are interspersed with tart, ambiguous harmonies; there is a canny use of musical space, a sense of height and depth to the unfolding structures. As on previous releases, the singing is both precise and fluid, immaculate and alive. In Robert Hunt’s Stabat mater, another remarkable piece by an otherwise unknown composer, the choir swells to a darkly splendid climax at “Stabat natus sic contentus / Ad debellandum Sathanam,” the latter name slicing through the air.
Ludford’s Marian votive antiphon Ave cujus conceptio is pure joy and a major discovery. I would fully endorse Sandon’s claim that Ludford [is] ‘a highly individual, imaginative, resourceful and polished composer, fit to be ranked alongside Taverner’ – high praise! The choir does Ludford ample justice, dipping and soaring effortlessly in his long-drawn phrases while pointing up the pervasive but never rigid imitation that binds the textures together and prefigures the procedures of such as Tallis and Byrd….
[L]ike Jones’s Mass, [Hunt’s Stabat Mater] is a step on the way towards a style – akin to the more ascetic type of late-Perpendicular architecture – that might have become one of the norms in post-Trent England had the Edwardian Reformation not intervened. Here again both the singing and the crystal-clear recording do justice to a hugely enjoyable work, not least at the dramatic cries of ‘Crucifige!’ and in the extended, heart-stirring Amen.
The Fourth Peterhouse CD: “Strongly recommended”
A superb example of what Scott Metcalfe has achieved with Blue Heron: an ensemble that yields to none for intonation, blend, and clarity, yet also utilizes both overall and part-related dynamics as an expressive device in a way most other professional choirs of its quality do not. Metcalfe is alive to the lyricism that was a remarked-upon feature of 15th century English music, and the beauty of Blue Heron’s phrasing displays this everywhere on this disc.…the entire series to date is worth the purchase…. Strongly recommended.
The Fourth Peterhouse CD: “Sweet Devotional Expressiveness”
With the fourth volume in its series of recordings drawing from the Peterhouse Partbooks, the Blue Heron ensemble continues to present little-heard treasures of Renaissance polyphony with its trademark combination of rich, creamy blend and crystalline tonal purity. Only a handful of choirs in the world can do what Blue Heron does, and among American ensembles it is nearly unique in the sweet devotional expressiveness of its sound. (A “Rick’s Pick” for September 2015).
There is something exhilarating in hearing vocal music for the first time, whether that music be new or old – and that is in addition to the pleasures of hearing familiar vocal works presented by new performers. Among the roster of old but never-before-heard pieces, those in the Peterhouse Partbooks from the early 16th century are especially fascinating for scholarly reasons, and highly worthy for musical ones as well. … The fourth Blue Heron Choir release includes Ave cujus conceptio by Ludford (c. 1490-1557); a moving and beautifully proportioned four-section Missa Spes nostra by Robert Jones (flourished 1520-35); an extended and lovely Stabat mater by Robert Hunt (early 16th century); and a brief Sarum plainchant, Kyrie Deus creator omnium. The choir’s sound is balanced and elegant, Scott Metcalfe’s leadership is impeccable, and the recording provides rare insight into music of its time and a most welcome chance to hear some very fine works that have lain unperformed for century upon century.
One of the Top Five Releases of the Year (“Want List”)
In a year of excellent choral releases, Blue Heron’s third entry in their Peterhouse Partbooks series took pride of place. Their combination of technical acuity and great care over expressive phrasing continues to impress, long after other ensembles that place maximum emphasis on internal balance fade slightly into the background.
Volume Three is An “Essential Purchase”
As was the case for the previous two volumes, this disc represents world-premiere recordings of the featured works: a parody Mass by Nicholas Ludford, a restored version of the obscure John Mason’s Ave prima fuit salus, and a selection of Sarum plainchant. The Mason piece in particular is rather strange and quite wonderful, and the Blue Heron choir’s sound is sumptuously rich as always. An essential purchase for all early music and choral collections. (A “Rick’s Pick” for October 2013.)
Third Volume of the Peterhouse Series Reviewed in The Boston Globe
Blue Heron’s series of exemplary recordings of this repertoire … continue with a third release, pairing “Ave fuit prima salus,” a stately, dark-hued antiphon by the largely unknown John Mason, with the serenely florid “Missa Inclina cor meum” by Nicholas Ludford, a prolific composer who nevertheless seems to have given up composing rather than adapt to newer Reformation styles.
The performances are suffused with elegance and polish, but, as with other releases in the series, what is equally compelling is the play of time: bygone, deliberately antiquarian relics reintroduced into the modern world as pristine artifacts; intense, expressively heightened dramas that unfold in a kind of purified, meditative slow motion.
2012 Want List
Blue Heron gets included on my list both for the quality of its performances, which are equal to the finest that can be found in Europe, and for its ongoing recording project devoted to the so-called Peterhouse Partbooks. The emphasis is on English sacred music from the first half of the 16th century, and roughly half of the contents are unique to this source. A nod of respect is also due to Nick Sandon, who has done very important restoration work since the early 1980s on the missing tenor book, and the beginning and conclusion of the treble book that have vanished as well.
From “Sounds of America: The Scene”
Blue Heron is a virtuoso vocal ensemble that specialises in 15th- and 16th-century English and European church music. The Boston-based ensemble sing five-part Renaissance polyphony, works that run the gamut from the sacred to the secular by composers whose names may not be familiar to everyone. For these concerts at the First Church in Cambridge Congregational, the 15 men and women of Blue Heron perform works by Dufay, Josquin, Obrecht, Brumel and others to celebrate Christmas. While pre-Baroque music may seem intimidating to some, Blue Heron’s sound is a revelation – fresh, dynamic and vibrant, making a welcome change from the well-known Christmas oratorios. This is pristine, urgent and wondrous music-making of the highest order.
Early Music Review Hails the Second Peterhouse CD
I was hugely impressed with the first CD in this admirable series exploring the neglected choral music of the Peterhouse Partbooks, and this second volume has been well worth waiting for. The random loss of one of the Tenor partbooks from the set and damage to a Treble book has meant that the composers, whose work was uniquely preserved here, were equally randomly consigned to a ‘second division’ in many minds simply due to the fact that their music missed out on the early stages of the rediscovery of English Renaissance choral music. Reconstruction work by Nick Sandon has now restored most of the contents, and composers such as Pygott and Ludford are beginning to be compared favourably in stature to their established contemporaries.
Ludford received a boost when several of his masses were recorded by The Cardinall’s Musick and revealed as considerable masterpieces, and this process continues with the present performance of his hitherto unrecorded Missa Regnum mundi. Based in Boston (USA), Blue Heron has specialised for over a decade in the music of this period and produces a spectacularly rich and accurate sound, with beautifully delineated articulation. Presenting the polyphony in the context of a partial liturgical reconstruction of a Sarum rite celebration of a Mass for St Margaret, the singers perform the chant with great assurance, negotiating even the treacherous contours of the Sarum Kyrie Conditor and the Alleluya with an engaging degree of familiarity such as their Renaissance counterparts would have enjoyed, so that the polyphony seems to rise organically from these strong roots. A lengthy dissertation on performance pitch in the notes seems in practice to boil down to an upward transposition of a semitone from modern A440, so no interstellar high trebles here. However, if anything it is the lower voices which carry much of the argument in Ludford’s polyphony and which are given rightful prominence here.
But what polyphony this is! Even as a hardened reviewer and performer/director of polyphony (including several mass settings by Ludford), I was transported by the exquisite beauty of this Mass, and found myself sitting in semi-darkness luxuriating in the genius of Ludford’s intertwining vocal lines. Pygott’s enormous Salve regina, running in this recording to almost 23 minutes of intricate polyphony, is in the more conservative idiom of the Eton Choirbook and is given an equally intelligent and exquisitely unhurried performance. I cannot recommend this superb CD highly enough – it is the sort of recording to listen to in awe at the sustained and unerring skill of the performers and the burgeoning brilliance of the composers (and their unobtrusive editor), and to shed a quiet tear for the untold treasures that have been lost.
Many voices: Blue Heron brings a hint of the Baroque to Renaissance polyphony
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Fortunately, fresh ideas about Renaissance performance are proliferating…
Among recent CDs in the polyphonic field, a recording by the Boston ensemble Blue Heron stands out, and not only because of the group’s pleasingly quirky name. The director of Blue Heron is Scott Metcalfe… His aim is to bring expressive intensity, even a hint of Baroque flair, to the earlier repertory…
The new Blue Heron disk … gathers five-part religious pieces by English composers of the early Tudor period: Robert Jones, John Mason, and, most significant, Hugh Aston… Only ten pieces by Aston survive, but they reveal a composer with a knack for generating brilliant climaxes from simple material…
Of course, my sense of Aston’s voice owes much to Blue Heron’s imaginative realization of his scores. Through an array of interpretive choices—fine gradations of dynamics; pungent diction; telling contrasts of ethereal and earthly timbres; tempos that are more lusty than languid; a way of propelling a phrase toward a goal—the music takes on narrative momentum, its moods dovetailing with the theme of the text. Listen to the brazen, almost raucous tone of the sopranos as they arrive, in “Ave Maria dive matris Anne,” at the self-reflexive phrase “psallentes et omnes hoc Ave Maria”—”and all singing this Hail Mary.” Or to the joyous thrust of the basses in the Amen coda of Aston’s “Gaude virgo mater Christi,” as they repeat a phrase in which one interval keeps widening, from a third to a fourth and, finally, to a fifth…
The seemingly serene music of Renaissance church ritual did not stem from yoga-like spells of meditation. Instead, as Andrew Kirkwood observes, it communicated a desperate plea for mercy—in particular, “the desire to shorten the time in purgatory that, short of sainthood and immediate passage to paradise, would follow earthly life.” … It is good to feel a hint of turbulence, of mortal fear, in performances such as Blue Heron’s…; with that quiver of passion, the music inspires even greater awe.