With clarity and immersive sonorities, New York Polyphony reminded the audience of music’s spiritual function in the 15th century, as well as its sublime beauty.
This male a cappella quartet (countertenor Geoffrey Williams, tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson, baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert and bass Craig Phillips) is nearing its 10th anniversary as an ensemble, 10 years of exploring and promoting the succinct authenticity and blend of pure voice in both ancient and contemporary settings as performers and scholars.
Presented by the Friends of Chamber Music, Saturday evening’s concert was in the appropriately spiritual and acoustic setting of the Grace & Holy Trinity Cathedral. The concert, “The Reign and Radiance of Spain,” included pieces by both well- and little-known Spanish Renaissance composers in primarily sacred works.
Opening with Francisco Guerrero’s “Regina caeli,” the four displayed their richly soaring, dedicated style, generating a startling push when the antiphonal writing resolved into unison “alleluia.”
The remainder of the concert’s first half was presented without pause, combining secular motets and Tomás Luis de Victoria’s “Missa ‘O quam gloriosum,’ ” a varied work with enticing moments: a staggered descending line topped with a gorgeous countertenor line in the Kyrie, a stentorian bass entrance on the Credo, the changing texture of the Sanctus and its sudden “Hosannas!”
These portions from the Ordinary of the Mass were divided by the secular love song “Quae est ista/Sugepropera” by Guerrero, its flowing melismas bursting with energy as the text requests, “rise up, my love.”
The first half concluded with Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s “Gaudent in caelis,” which joyfully followed the plaintive calm of the Mass’ Agnus Dei with its lively, expressive text painting.
New York Polyphony devoted the second half of the concert to works by Francisco de Peñalosa, recovered by musicologist Jane Morlet Hardie. Using her modern transcriptions, the ensemble this summer presented the first performance of Peñalosa’s “Lamentations of Jeremiah” heard in several hundred years.
The work featured sections of morphing lines of incredible depth, an expansive stillness to the flow of text and lingering cadences. Each section began with an extended treatment on a Hebrew letter (Aleph, Beth, Gimel) to both set up and separate texts, leading the audience into contemplative reverie.
An encore from early American heritage concluded the concert, featuring the sweet tones of tenor Wilson in “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” its triple time pulse in contrast to the more fluid pace of the previous works.