The Christmas program that Renaissance Voices presented at St. Luke’s Cathedral in Portland on Saturday evening bore some similarity to the program that St. Mary Schola offered in the same space last week. Granted, there was no overlap in repertory, or even composers, and St. Mary Schola concentrated on pre-Classical works, while Renaissance Voices’ program ranged from Plainchant through contemporary music.

What they shared, apart from their Christmas theme, was a structure in which composers’ perspectives on the holiday, or the theology behind it, alternated with readings. But even there, the groups took distinct approaches, with St. Mary Schola focusing exclusively on religious texts, and Renaissance Voices offering a secular counterpoint, through excerpts of works by Jane Kenyon, Rita Dove and Carl Dennis.

These two chamber choirs each produce a wonderfully polished sound, with some notable differences. Bruce Fithian, St. Mary Schola’s director, frequently reconfigures his group over the course of performance, showing off his best singers as soloists and in duets, trios and other subdivisions, and his choir is accompanied by a period instrument ensemble. Harold Stover, who directs Renaissance Voices, focuses primarily on works for full ensemble (an exception, this time, was the Plainchant “Alleluia Excita Domine,” sung by men’s voices only) performed a cappella.

Stover quickly demonstrated the smoothness and homogeneity of his choir’s blend, and the clarity with which it projects texts, in Tomas Luis de Victoria’s “Natus est nobis” and Orlando di Lasso’s “Veni Domine et noli tartare,” with the “Alleluia Excita Domine” separating them. In these, and in a late Baroque work, Juan García de Salazar’s “Alma redemptoris Mater,” the principal quality Stover sought, and the choir delivered, was a sense of devout serenity, supported by an unassailable ensemble solidity.

That solidity remained consistent throughout the program, even as the choir’s coloration brightened. The anonymous English carol (offered in an arrangement by Charles Wood) “Blessed Be That Maid Marie,” showed the ensemble’s more robust side, as did the richly contrapuntal “Canite tuba in Sion,” by the early Baroque composer Hieronymous Praetorius, and the group’s encore, “The Old Year Now Away is Fled,” one of several carols set to the melody of “Greensleeves.”

None of these are warhorses, exactly, but if you listen to enough early music you are bound to run into them now and again. More surprising were the pieces furthest from the era from which the ensemble takes its name – specifically, four Latin motets by the 19th century composer Josef Rheinberger, and a pair of contemporary settings by David W. Jepson and Sally Herman.

The Rheinberger pieces breathe the air of several musical eras at once, with a Renaissance seamlessness on the surface, but also hints of chromaticism and occasional undercurrent of darker hues that pull the piece into Rheinberg’s own time. They are exquisitely harmonized, and the choir sang them with warmth and suppleness.

Jepson’s “A Little Child There Is Ybore” and Herman’s “O magnum mysterium” also do some era-hopping. The Jepson, a setting of a Medieval carol in old English (another point of contact with the St. Mary Schola program, which included several works and readings in antique forms of the language), the piece retains its structure, rhythm and melody, but cloaks them in updated harmonies.

Herman, perhaps awed by the immense repertory of “O magnum mysterium” settings, gave her score a neo-Renaissance feel, which put it firmly in this choir’s wheelhouse, and Stover drew from his singers a performance with precisely the same qualities that made the Victoria and Lasso readings so appealing.

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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