Renaissance Voices, the fine chamber choir conducted by Harold Stover, presents only a couple of programs a year – one at Christmas, one in the spring – and they are both relatively brief, running just over an hour. But among the attractions of these concerts is that Stover has an uncanny ability to ferret out little-known but thoroughly worthy repertory, from medieval through modern times. That’s a refreshing approach at any time, but it especially elevates his annual Christmas concerts to must-hear status.

Stover and his 22 singers opened their “Christmas With Renaissance Voices” program at St. Luke’s Cathedral on Saturday evening with “Surge, Illuminare, Jerusalem,” a sweetly harmonized, setting of a passage from Isaiah by the early 16th-century composer Francesco Corteccia. You don’t hear a lot of Corteccia, nowadays, and you don’t typically see his name listed among the great composers of his time. But works like this, in performances as richly blended as this choir’s, suggest that further research might usefully add to our notion of the era.

From there, Stover forged ahead through musical history, following the Corteccia with “The Lute-Book Lullaby,” by the early 17th century composer William Ballet, and then into the 20th century for Charles F. Waters’ “I Sing of a Maiden.” Both contemplative works that celebrate Mary, but which, along with the Corteccia, offer a gentle overview of how harmonic practice evolved over four centuries.

That evolution would have seemed less gentle and more stark if Stover had chosen a less conservative composer than Waters to represent the 20th century, but the shift would have been more jarring. And after all, the most recent generation of composers has avoided the competing stylistic dogmas of the late 20th century, arguing instead that all of musical history’s myriad styles are theirs to work with as they see fit.

Stover included a work by one composer who takes that view. Tamsin Jones, born in 1972, applied a fluid, rhythmically vital style to “Noel: Verbum Caro Factum Est,” a work with a text that combines an anonymous medieval poem with a passage from the Gospel of John. Jones kept largely within the late-Renaissance, early Baroque spirit, but the work’s rhythmic character had a medieval quality that Stover pointed out by preceding it with an early 14th-century work, “Alle Psallite Cum Luya” – basically, an Alleluia with phrases interpolated between the second and third syllable.

Other pairings were similarly connected. A setting of Gregorio Turini’s late 16th-century setting of “Hodie Christus Natus Est” was preceded by the plainsong chant on which it is based; another, more exuberant setting of the same text, by the early Baroque composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, closed the programs. And Clara Schumann’s gracefully melodic and richly harmonized “Abendfeier in Venedig,” with its text (by Emmanuel Geibel) expanding poetically on the traditional “Ave Maria,” was preceded by an anonymous Viennese “Ave Maria” setting.

One of Stover’s recent fascinations is the music of the mid- to late 19th-century composer Josef Rheinberger, whose works have been centerpieces of several recent Renaissance Voices programs. Here, the choir presented three of Rheinberger’s Advent motets, all exquisite, late-Romantic settings. This was, however, the one group that gave the choir any trouble: “Rorate Coeli Desuper” and “Universi” were beautifully and solidly sung, but there were a couple of rough patches in “Ave Maria,” which came between them.

Between several of the groups, singers from the choir read short, seasonally apt poems, with entries by Longfellow, Anne Ritter and Ted Hughes. And the ensemble gave a thoroughly polished account of Bach’s “O Jesulein Süss” as an encore. For the Bach, Stover gave the downbeat and then stepped aside, leaving the choir to sing the work on its own.

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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