St. Mary Schola, the chamber choir and period instrument group directed by Bruce Fithian, is one of the most finely polished choirs in Portland, and the competition is hefty. But even if it weren’t, you would have to admire the care and logic with which its “Christmas Pastorale” programs are built.

Typically an alternation of readings (both antique and relatively modern) and musical works (from the Medieval through Baroque eras), these annual tellings of the Christmas story balance the arcane and the familiar, but their real attraction is that they give you other things to ponder as well.

This year’s program, which Fithian led on Friday evening at St. Luke’s Cathedral (there are two more performances at other churches this week), looked at writers’ and composers’ responses to the mystical and doctrinal backdrop of Christmas – among them, the virgin birth and the idea of God taking human form – as well as the more folkloric expansions on the story, including dialogues between shepherds and angels as they await Jesus’ birth.

Woven through that was a fascinating look at an entirely different subject – the evolution of English, as traced in several of the readings. It’s one thing to match texts with musical works that reflect the same sentiments or plot lines, but Fithian went further, choosing antique versions of texts that we know in more modern forms.

Introducing Josquin des Prez’s magnificently flowing setting of “In principio erat verbum” (“In the Beginning Was the Word”), for example, Fithian could have used a modern English translation of Josquin’s New Testament source text, the opening sentences of the Gospel of John. Instead, the reading was drawn from William Wycliffe’s late 14th-century Bible, which reads and sounds differently: The lines we know as “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being,” is rendered as “Alle thingis weren maad bi hym, and withouten hym was maad no thing.”

An even earlier, more Germanic version of English, scarcely intelligible to modern ears, was heard in an excerpt from the Exeter Book, which dates back to the eighth or ninth centuries and ends with the same praise heard in the Sanctus of the Roman Catholic Mass – a rich example of which, from Monteverdi’s “Missa in Illo Tempore,” immediately followed.

More conventional English readings came from the King James Bible, William Dunbar, who straddled the 15th and 16th centuries, the 17th-century poet Robert Herrick and the 19th-century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. A French poem, Théophile Gautier’s “Noël,” prefaced the program’s largest work (even in the excerpted form heard here), Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s “Pastorale sur la Naissance de Notre Seigneur Jésus Christ” (H. 483).

This linguistic sideline also found its way in to the music: Fithian opened the program with two 15th-century English carols, “Nowell, Owt of Your Slepe” and “Alleluia: A Newë Work.”

Those pieces also introduced the superb state of the choir’s beautifully blended, carefully shaped sound, an impression furthered by the Josquin and Monteverdi works, in which Fithian drew an exquisitely silken sound from his singers, and brought a measure of flexibility – mostly in his use of fluid dynamics, especially at phrase endings – to his interpretations. That flexibility also enlivened later Baroque works, including Michael Praetorius’ “Resonet in laudibus” and the Charpentier.

The program included some admirable solo and small ensemble work. Molly Harmon, who sang the expansive Angel’s aria, and bass John D. Adams, who sang the role of the Ancient One, were the standouts in the Charpentier. Tenor Martin Lescault brought his clear, powerful tone to “O Seelenparadies,” from Bach’s Cantata No. 172, and was joined by Fithian (who, besides conducting and playing harpsichord, is a tenor) and countertenor Christopher Garrepy for a smooth, melting account of Dufay’s “Flos Florum.”

Lescault and another tenor, Paul McGovern, and two sopranos, Christine Letcher and Rachel Keller, gave a lively performance of the Gloria from Praetorius’ “Missa Gantz Teudsch,” and Schütz’s “Rorate coeli desuper” was gracefully served by Adams, Letcher and mezzo-soprano Andrea Graichen.

The accompanying ensemble, which included several Portland early music regulars and a few guest players, performed at a high level, particularly in the Charpentier, in which alternating string and recorder lines kept the instrumental interludes dancing.

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

[email protected]

Twitter: kozinn

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