If the Christmas season revives a rich body of American song for the holiday, it also is a door into the vast, centuries-old library of sacred choral music that amplifies the observance.
Following by three days a concert by Miami’s Seraphic Fire that also explored ancient classical repertoire, the vocal quartet New York Polyphony made its first stop in Florida in seven years Sunday at the Society of the Four Arts in an absorbing program of old and contemporary art song for Christmas.
The four men – countertenor Geoffrey Williams, tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson, baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert and bass Craig Phillips – sang to a modest afternoon house in the Gubelmann Auditiorium, which lacks the reverb necessary to bring out the echoic overtones that make church music of the High Renaissance (the foursome’s chief repertory) so evocative and compelling. And so, audience members deprived of that glory nevertheless heard an expert ensemble that paid close attention to dynamics, vocal unity and compositional variety.
The intermission-less program included original works and arrangements by Williams and Phillips as well as pieces by contemporary English and Irish composers amid the Renaissance pieces by Palestrina, Verdelot and Willaert. Williams told the audience the goal of the group was to program concerts in such as a way as to leave audiences unsure what century the music they were hearing came from. In order to do that, the music needs to have a commonality of style, and this lineup did.
Part of that comes from the old texts used by a composer like Andrew Smith, an English-born musician who has lived in Norway for decades. Three of his works – Veni, redemptor gentium, Ave maris stella and Out of Your Sleep – set to Latin words from church tradition and a 15th-century British manuscript. Smith has written a number of works for New York Polyphony, and the opening Veni, redemptor gentium began with plainchant before expanding into a slow, darkly colored song of deep devotion whose modal inflections made it sound hundreds of years older than it was.
Smith’s Ave maris stella cannily combined the old hymn with the French carol Noël nouvelet, and in all three cases the quartet sang with precision and intensity. The same was true for the Irish composer Michael McGlynn’s O pia Virgo mater, with its archaic cast but very contemporary harmonies that pose thorny problems of intonation the four singers nimbly sidestepped.
All of these works were hommages, more or less, to the 15th- and 16th-century writers on the program, including the French composer Philippe Verdelot, whose elegant Gabriel archangelus was followed by two movements from a Palestrina parody mass of Verdelot’s motet. While the Verdelot had the austere flavor of its time, pairing them together showcased the warmer harmonic language of Palestrina.
The same kind of sweet, smooth writing was evident in the well-sung Ave Maria of the Flemish master Adrian Willaert, contrasting sharply with two pieces from the early 15th century, Thomas (?) Byteryng’s Nesciens mater and the anonymous Lullay, lullow I saw a swete semly sight. This last was sung by two voices, Herbert and Phillips, and the other two men took the next piece, The Fader of Heven, a late 15th-century text set by Britain’s Peter Maxwell Davies. The Maxwell Davies piece was full of his trademark harmonic quirkiness, requiring Williams and Wilson to demonstrate admirable on-the-nose intonation.
The four also teamed up for an unusual work, the Serenade d’hiver of Camille Saint-Saëns. This 1867 frolic was the kind of piece that ordinary folks joined together to sing at a piano when home music-making was a regular part of daily entertainment in the days before radio and television. Like all Saint-Saëns, it shows impeccable technique, here put to the service of a gently humorous text (by Henri Cazalis) spoken by four masked suitors desiring nothing but “a smile from your red lips.” The work provided a bit of fresh respite from the relative solemnity of the rest of the program, and New York Polyphony took full advantage of it.
This was an afternoon of expert music-making by a superlative vocal quartet, but even they couldn’t make the music sound less dry than it often did in that uncongenial hall. If Four Arts brings them back next year, perhaps they can present them in a resonant acoustic where the beauty of what they do could be better appreciated.