CAMBRIDGE -- Founded in 1999, the Blue Heron Renaissance Choir has a concert schedule more modest than many vocal groups in town. This season featured just two performances, the second of which took place on Sunday afternoon. But judging by the near-capacity crowd that packed into First Church, the word is clearly out on this fine ensemble and its approach to repertoire from the distant past that combines scholarly rigor with vibrant, expressive musicianship. The concert also marked the release of the group's first CD, a handsome collection of motets, hymns, chansons, and other works by Guillaume Du Fay .
To Blue Heron's credit, the chorus did not simply reprise the material from its CD for Sunday's concert, but rather broke fresh ground, presenting the much-admired but seldom-performed music of Perotin and Ockeghem . A program note freely acknowledged that there was little on the surface to link these men, Perotin living in the 13th century and Ockeghem in the 15th, but in a lively preconcert lecture, Harvard musicologist Thomas Kelly paired them simply as creators of the best music of their respective eras.
On this program Ockeghem was represented most substantially by his "Salve Regina" and by the Sanctus and Agnus Dei of his "Missa Mi Mi." The music of this Franco-Flemish master unspools in a dazzling maze of crisscrossing lines, magnificent in their complexity and austere beauty. Follow the patterns closely and they are mind-bending; soften the focus of your concentration and this spacious music washes over you, as entrancing as a majestic cathedral.
Perotin is a composer about whom we know very little, beyond his mention in a famous anonymous medieval source. His monophonic "Beata Viscera" was given an exacting, pure-voiced performance by four women of Blue Heron, its virulently anti-Semitic verses omitted. But the heart of the Perotin offerings were the four-voice works "Viderunt Omnes" and "Sederunt Principes." These pieces are extraordinary for the way single syllables are stretched out into extremely long drones and festooned with beautiful short cells of repeating melody, a kind of sublime minimalism avant la lettre.
Under the artistic leadership of Scott Metcalfe, the performances were handsomely polished and beautifully delivered, with keen attention paid to the clarity of interplay among voices. The program was warmly received, and the singers responded with a rewarding Du Fay encore, naturally enough, from their new CD.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.