With one notable exception, St. Mary Schola, the superb early music choir, built its Tuesday evening program at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception around Italian sacred music of the 16th through 18th centuries. The centerpiece was Handel’s “Dixit Dominus” (HWV 232), an expansive setting of Psalm 110 that Handel composed in 1707, when he was a 22-year journeyman, living in Rome, his great operas, oratorios and concertos still in his future. Its companion pieces were mostly composed in Venice, and included a setting of the “Pater Noster” (better known in English as the Lord’s Prayer) by Adrian Willaert, and works by Heinrich Schütz and Claudio Monteverdi, including Monteverdi’s earlier treatment of Psalm 110.

The odd work out – the only non-Latin, non-Baroque setting – was a version of the Lord’s Prayer by Bruce Fithian, the choir’s director. Fithian composed his setting in Gothic, an ancient Germanic language.

It was a wonderfully impractical effort. With the Visigoths long absent from the world stage, it seems unlikely that many congregations will be clamoring for Fithian’s “Gothic Lord’s Prayer,” which had its premiere at the concert. But Fithian seems not to have been concerned about that. He was inspired, instead, by a biography of J.R.R. Tolkien, in which he learned that the author had based the Elvish language of “The Lord of the Rings” on Gothic, and had made a recording of the Lord’s Prayer in the language.

Fithian’s harmonization of the text is conservatively modern, and his approach to rhythm is natural and straightforward, rooted directly to the language’s cadence. Unlike the Willaert version – a gloriously rich setting that flows with a calm seamlessness – this Gothic account has an underpinning of urgency. The Willaert is an angelic hymn; the Fithian is an intense plea. The choir sang each on its own terms, beautifully and persuasively.

Fithian opened the concert with a plainsong version of the “Pater Noster,” in an arrangement that began with women’s voices only, then men’s, then both for the final line. Apart from offering yet a third version of this prayer, the chant version set the stage for the Willaert, which uses the plainsong melody as the structure upon which strands of exquisite counterpoint are draped.

Schütz’s “O Jesu, Nomen Dulce” (SWV 308), and a Monteverdi setting of “Laudate Dominum,” each offered a soloist from the choir a moment to shine. Martin Lescault used his supple tenor to fine effect in the Schütz, a densely ornamented work that demands the kind of crisp articulation that Lescault supplied. The Monteverdi benefited similarly from the power and depth of John D. Adams’ rich baritone. Later, in the Handel, the solo roster was expanded to include subtly shaped contributions by mezzo-soprano Andrea Graichen and soprano Molly Harmon, with several other singers holding the spotlight more fleetingly.

The two “Dixit Dominus” settings had one significant point in common: Each sets the psalm one sentence at a time, as if each phrase were a mini-composition, with its own tempo, textures and character. Stylistically, though, they tell us a lot about how radically music changed in the 65 years that separates them.

Monteverdi’s, drawn from his 1640 “Selva Morale e Sprituale” collection, has the quality of a drama, with hard-driven sections offset by moments of introspective repose, both qualities that the psalm text demands. Although Monteverdi published it late in his life (he died in 1643), it is couched in the harmonic and melodic language of the operas he composed at the start of the 17th century.

That language had become more compact, in some ways, and grander, in others, by the time young Handel wrote his version, which is packed with the long, winding lines and dramatic shifts – the sharp accenting chords, for example, on the line “Juravit Dominus et non paenitebit eum” (“The Lord has decided and will not change his mind”) – that were becoming hallmark’s of Handel’s style.

In both works, Fithian led his choir and a period instrument ensemble in cohesive, energetic performances, beautifully sung and deftly played.

The program will be repeated on Friday at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke, in Portland, and on Sunday at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary, in Falmouth.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

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