There is nothing quite like English music from the period that straddled the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Composed mostly by musicians whose principal instrument was the lute – although keyboardists, like William Byrd, were gaining ground – this music was written in an open scoring, to be performed on whatever instruments were available. And because it was widely published, talented amateurs could perform, at home, the same music their rulers were hearing at court.

That music could include lively galliards and stately pavans. Yet an undercurrent of melancholy – a distinctive musical characteristic of the Elizabethans and their immediate successors – runs through much of it, and sets English music of the time apart from the sunnier works composed in France, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy. This is the popular music of Shakespeare’s day, and once you’ve heard it, it’s impossible to read his plays without hearing echoes of it, between the lines.

The Portland Early Music series offered a varied sampling of this repertory in its “Music for Broken Consort” program Saturday evening in the small octagonal chapel at St. Luke’s Cathedral. A broken consort is an ensemble that includes both winds and strings (as opposed to a consort of viols, which is strings only), although as it turned out, only a few pieces used that scoring.

One was Daniel Batchelar’s “Lady Walsingham’s Conceits,” a slow, elegant fantasy that, in the arrangement presented here, gave the melody line to a recorder, played by Michael Albert, with lines of counterpoint from two violas da gamba (Karthryn Sytsma and Todd Borgerding). But the real action is in the lute figuration, played deftly by Seth Warner.

In Thomas Morley’s “The Sacred End Pavan,” which was paired with John Baxter’s “Galliard to the Sacred End,” a livelier setting of the same musical theme, Warner and company were joined by Timothy Burris, the director of the series, on a second lute. Burris had the lute position to himself in a suite by Matthew Locke, heard near the end of the program. And for the finale, a vigorous but dark-hued Pavin (English spelling was not yet standardized) by Peter Philips, the ensemble included both lutenists.

In the Morley, Baxter, Locke and Philips works, English melancholia reigns supreme, tempered occasionally by brighter themes, and with the interplay between the musical lines as a form of virtuosic antidote.

The ensemble performances were carefully balanced and thoughtfully played. It’s easy to be spoiled by recordings of this music, which offer an idealized view in which lutes typically ring out more strongly against the string and wind textures, than they do (or can) in a live setting. Here, the balances are more akin to what was heard when this music was new, and there is something to be said for that. Ornate lute figuration is in many ways the heart and soul of these works, but hearing it fully demands (and rewards) hard, focused listening.

Between the consort works, the players offered an impressive set of solo pieces and duets. Particularly striking was Sytsma’s performance of Christopher Simpson’s “Divisions on a Ground,” a wide-ranging set of variations for solo viola da gamba. Albert traded his recorder for a violin for a graceful account of a Prelude by Thomas Baltzar, and was joined by Burris, on lute, for Baltzer’s “A Division on a Ground by Mr. John Banister.”

For lute fanciers who prefer to hear the instrument on its own, Burris and Warner played a set of dances by William Lawes, and Warner gave fine, shapely readings of two intricate dances by Anthony Holborne.

An especially impressive aspect of the program was the degree to which Burris and company resisted making it into a collection of the era’s biggest hits. There were some frequently heard pieces – the Philips and Morley, for example, can be found on the pioneering recordings by the Julian Bream Consort, and Bream recorded the Lawes duets with John Williams (on guitars rather than lutes). But much of the program was drawn from less thoroughly explored corners of the repertory, and it proved both pleasing and illuminating, as the Portland Early Music programs usually are.

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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