CAMBRIDGE - In a way, the history of Renaissance music resembles that of jazz, which started in New Orleans and then spread north with the migration of African-Americans in the 20th century. The direction of musical migration in 15th- and 16th-century Europe was south: from present-day Belgium and northern France to Italy, the main source of power and musical patronage. On Friday, the Tallis Scholars and their director, Peter Phillips, traced that path of expatriate influence.
Making their nineteenth annual appearance in Boston, the group first paired a motet by the French composer Jean Lhéritier with a mass based around it by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, the great Italian consolidator of Franco-Flemish innovations. Using a pre-existing piece as a basis for a choral mass was standard practice; Palestrina samples Lhéritier's "Nigra sum" (from the Song of Songs) in near-literal fashion to open most of his mass's movements. But where Lhéritier lays down plush, echoing layers in languid time, Palestrina reworks the material with a sharper rhythmic profile, a powerful motor idling under the surface, ready to kick into florid gear when the counterpoint reaches critical mass.
The group, 10 strong (sometimes fewer for contrast), demonstrated its fabled precision and purity of intonation, but what distinguished the performance was the corporeal presence of their sound, a subtle viscerality that kept detailed care from tipping over into hermetic preciousness; Phillips didn't seem to shape the phrases so much as allow them room for a hale, natural flow.
The second half featured more paired sets. Jean Mouton's rustically consonant Christmas-pageant "Quaeramus cum pastoribus" played off Thomas Crecquillon's setting of the same text, whose more understated polish paid off at the bittersweet finish. The solemn cortege of an austere "Pater noster" by the seminal figure of the Franco-Flemish movement, Josquin Des Prez, contrasted with the antiphonal high-versus-low pealing of Jacobus Gallus's version of the same prayer.
The program finished with Gallus's "Omnes de Saba," bright, anthemic fanfares, but the highlight was Gallus's "Mirabile mysterium," a theological meditation on the innovative wondrousness of the nativity. Gallus and the singers rose to the challenge with an astonishingly modernist string of disorienting harmonic shifts: serpentine polyphony over chromatic, jump-cut chord changes that would have made John Coltrane proud.