Renaissance Voices, the a cappella choir conducted by Maine composer Harold Stover, never ceases to amaze and delight. The audience at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke on Saturday night was larger than ever, and if they were seeking truly spiritual Christmas music, they were not disappointed.

The selections ranged from Michael Praetorious (1571-1621) to Peter Warlock (1894-1930), but all were equally compelling, whether one were celebrating the birth of the Savior or the winter solstice.

Warlock, as his chosen name implies, may have been suspected of practicing the black arts, but his “Bethlehem Down” and “Benedicamus Domino,” combine the best of Renaissance and 20th-century British Renaissance musical styles to create profoundly moving images.

“Bethlehem Down,” like some other carols, presages the final act of the Christian drama, in a striking minor-key section, while contrasting it with the tranquility of the cattle fold. The “Benedicamus Domino” that followed is a triumphant shout in choppy Latin meter to celebrate the virgin birth.

Both were perfectly sung, in spite of the difficulties inherent in Warlock’s modal shifts.

The lively “Four Villancicos” of Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599) also expressed widely different moods and a fresh story-telling approach. Villancicos were a widely popular secular form, consisting of stanza and refrain, often used by the church to instruct converts in the New World.

Guerrero’s refrains are thought-provoking and catchy, for example “porque el nino puede dar” (for the child can grant) or “Que se puede desear? Que no se halle en el suelo” (What can you desire that is not found here below?) Alto Sarah Potter’s solo stanza of the “el nino” villancico was outstanding.

The program began with an unusual idea — singing the well-known 14th-century German carol, “In Dulci jubilo,” and then its settings by Machael Praetorius (1571-1621), J.S. Bach (1685-1750) and Hieronymus Praetorius (1560-1629). It’s hard to say who won that particular competition, since each version had is own particular beauties.

I have always enjoyed the Renaissance Voices Christmas programs, but this year’s seemed even better than usual, with more fullness and balance in the group.

The encore was a moving rendition of “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming.”

Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at:

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