Heron > About Us > Reviews (through 2010)
- "superbly conceived and executed ... equally superb program notes"
- "Metcalfe has a nice sense of drama that puts his richly excellent musical ensemble over the top."
- "The twelve singers ... all did themselves proud."
The Boston-based vocal ensemble Blue Heron made its Washington debut this week on the Friends of Music series at Dumbarton Oaks. The ensemble's captivating program of 15th-century polyphonic chansons, heard Monday night, featured five of the group's singers in various combinations and sometimes supported by instruments.
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Piffaro’s 1616 baptism and ballet - review of the Piffaro concert, with guest choir Blue Heron
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On Saturday, October 16, a sizable audience at First Church Congregational in Cambridge was privileged to hear Blue Heron under Scott Metcalfe present what was almost certainly the North American premiere of Nicholas Ludford’s Missa Regnum mundi, composed in the 1530s.
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On Saturday, March 13, Scott Metcalfe and his virtuoso a cappella ensemble Blue Heron cast a comprehensive glance over what awakening 16th-century Spain had to say on the subject of passion. Mr. Metcalfe's nicely judged juxtaposition of small forces and large, of a cappella textures and rich-hued accompanied tapestries, entertained and engaged the sizable audience in First Church, Cambridge.
For more on "a very fine concert" featuring "impeccable musicianship" and a "happily contrasting program," read the
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Blue Heron: Artistry and Veracity in Revival of Dufay
The interdependence between musical practice and historical research is nowhere more conspicuous than in the music of the Renaissance. It is a fitting tradition, then, that the Blue Heron Renaissance Choir conceptualizes their concert programs in ways that not only delight audiences with masterful performances but also give audiences a healthy dose of historical insight into a widely misunderstood period of music.
The unifying concept of Blue Heron’s Friday evening program on March 13, entitled “Dufay, Savoy, and the Island of Cyprus” was quite straightforward: in 1434, the King of Cyprus’s daughter went to Savoy to marry the son of the duke. The festivities resulted in connections between multiple musical styles from different regions. The program featured various selections from Guillaume Dufay, Gilles Binchois, and anonymous works from Cyprus found in the manuscript that accompanied the bride to Savoy.
The concert began with a splendid performance of Dufay’s Supremum est mortalibus bonum, followed by Isti sunt due olive. Highlighting the versatility of the musicians, Scott Metcalfe, after conducting the first two pieces, picked up a vielle and joined Daniela Tošić and Mark Sprinkle in the first of two works by Binchois for smaller subsections of the group. It is in these works for two or three voices that the unbelievable blending ability of the singers shines through. The first half of the program ended with the larger group returning for the first example of the anonymous Cypriot works, featuring a much more lyrical flow and lugubrious feel than the earlier works.
During intermission, the Cambridge Society for Early Music honored a special guest, Alejandro Enrique Planchart, with the Arion Award, honoring him for his contributions to the field. Professor Planchart is the leading scholar on the music of Dufay, and a veteran of the field of Renaissance musicology. The value of Planchart’s research and its application to these kinds of performances cannot be understate; without the stimulation of interest in Early Music by Planchart and his contemporaries, performances by groups like Blue Heron would be utterly lacking in historical accuracy.
The second half began with more of the haunting sonorities of works found in the Cyprus manuscript. In a mirror-like order of the first half, Blue Heron then performed selections from a Binchois Mass, and closed with a few more works of Dufay’s. Puisque vous estez campieur was an explosion of energy. Though only featuring two singers and Scott Metcalfe on vielle, the song easily gained the loudest applause of the evening. Lydia Knutson and Aaron Sheehan performed Dufay’s wildly difficult piece with an endearing sense of playfulness and vigor. Never has a drinking song sounded so musical.
The concert concluded with the Credo of Dufay’s Missa Se la face ay pale, one of his most celebrated works, a Mass based on the melodies of his secular song of the same name. The director preceded the performance with a wonderful explanation of the structure of the piece by having the trombone player play the tenor, a melodic line that is the main building block of the entire composition. It was pleasing to hear the ensemble not only commit to a fine performance of the work, but help the audience to understand better the archaic and unfamiliar form of music.
I was, of course, eager to hear Planchart’s opinion of the concert after the second half.
“The performance was magnificent,” Planchart said without any hint of hesitation. “Furthermore, this is the first performance I’ve heard of any movement of [Dufay's Missa] Se la face ay pale at what I regard as the right tempos for that piece … you could hear that the Mass… sounds like it was written by the same guy who wrote the songs.”
Blue Heron has proven that they can draw crowds and instill interest in Early Music. Every concert I have attended has packed the First Congregational Church of Cambridge. Their performance standard is second-to-none. With their commitment to audience engagement, performance quality, and historical veracity that awes even the most scrupulous of experts, Blue Heron sets the standard for the presentation of Renaissance vocal music.
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Medieval music, early and late, from France and Spain
The Du Fay discography continues to grow apace: the number of groups regularly performing his music and their quality are truly astonishing. One of the most impressive of these discs to have come my way lately is a collection by the American ensemble Blue Heron, under Scott Metcalfe, Guillaume Du Fay: Motets, Hymns and Chansons (BHCD 1001, rec 2006, 74'). A 14-member group, with three instrumentalists to help out, Blue Heron produces a wonderfully clear sound that is nevertheless not lacking in depth, and the highlights of the recording—in that they display these qualities to perfection—are the so-called ‘Sanctus Papale’ (the Sanctus ‘Ave verum corpus’, possibly written for the consecration of Santa Maria dei Fiore in Florence in 1436) and Rite majorem, in honour of St James. The chansons are also beautifully sung, by smaller groups, but again with a pleasingly full sound. An extremely impressive recorded debut.
The choir's warm, organ-like sound, weighted toward tenor and bass, blended wonderfully with the instruments . . . Quartets from the choir gave pure-toned bounce to love songs by Gabriel Díaz Besón and Juan Blas de Castro.
It was worth waiting for. …Scott knows what he is doing, as do his singers (try the quick J’atendray tant and for contrast the following Mon cuer me fait) and the performances convince… This disc shows off the mellifluous beauty of much of the music. It is somewhat laid-back, but not overly so. If I say that it is an ideal introduction to Dufay, I don’t wish to discourage more experienced listeners. It’s a good, unhackneyed program: buy it!
Blue Heron's signature purity of intonation and clarity of line … expressive immediacy … the choir sang with the accuracy and immediacy required for this music to address a modern listener with an intensity undimmed by the centuries.
… this virtuosic chorus … has turned historical excavation into vibrant musical adventure over the last eight seasons.
Sounds of the past speak to the present
CAMBRIDGE — Few forms of art seem more rarefied than Renaissance polyphony. Its flow of religious praise melded to sinuous contrapuntal melodies appears to belong not just to another time but to another universe. Yet at Sunday’s concert by the extraordinary Blue Heron Renaissance Choir, the real world managed to creep subtly and uneasily in.
The largest single work on the chorus’s all-English program was the “Missa Mater Christi” by John Taverner. This Mass setting is based on a motet of the same name, and each of its four polyphonic movements - the opening Kyrie is chanted - reuses and explores music from the motet, teasing out its material into a sweeping series of variations.
Interestingly, music director Scott Metcalfe dispersed the Mass’s movements over the program’s two halves, interweaving them with motets by William Byrd and John Mason. Byrd’s compact and vigorous “Vigilate” was the curtain raiser for the Gloria and Credo. Their soaring upper lines and glittering harmonies seemed to bespeak the simple joy of God’s presence and the solidity of faith.
Doubt began to creep in during Mason’s complex “Quales sumus O miseri.” Its title translates as “What are we, O wretches,” and it sets an unusually graphic and melancholy text for five low voices. Though it is a plea for the Virgin’s mercy, much of the music remains transfixed in darkness.
The mood was extended in the second half, as three Byrd motets surrounded the glowing Sanctus and wistful Agnus Dei of Taverner’s Mass. Each motet invoked the image of Jerusalem within themes of distance and inaccessibility. “Quomodo cantabimus” pictured it as the longed-for site of return from exile. “Ne irascaris,” one of Byrd’s greatest creations, saw the holy city in ruins, lamenting “Jerusalem is forsaken.” And “Haec dicit Dominus,” with its shifting tonalities, held out the bare possibility that Israel’s children “shall return to their borders.”
Though Metcalfe’s program note made a brief allusion to religious conflict, there was no didactic point made here, no simple sloganeering. But the program was a reminder that even in the ethereal company of music more than 400 years old, the discord of the present is always present. It was a striking, if unsettling, realization.
In its eight seasons, Blue Heron has established itself as the city’s finest purveyor of Renaissance polyphony, and Sunday’s concert only enhanced that impression. Its 14 voices create a sound that’s almost sensually rich, yet balanced and incandescent. Metcalfe maintained superb control over texture and dynamics. A well-filled First Church indicated that the chorus already has a devoted following, one that should grow during its ninth season.
© Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.
Guillaume DuFay: Motets, Hymns, Chansons, Sanctus Papale. Blue Heron, Scott Metcalfe, director, Blue Heron BHCD 1001
This marvelous debut recording by the Boston-based choir Blue Heron focuses on music by the brilliant Guillaume DuFay (c. 1397-1474). DuFay excelled in all the sacred and secular vocal forms of the day, and one of the pluses of this CD is the scope of the music presented. While we don't have any of DuFay’s settings of the Mass ordinary (might we have that in future recordings?), there is enough remarkable sacred music to shed light on this genius composer.
The most powerful works on the disc are the isorhythmic motets, written in commemoration of special occasions. “Isorhythmic motet” is a contemporary term (and a stiff one at that) that describes a technique where a repeating rhythmic unit is found in one or more of the voices while the melodic material changes. Dry stuff in theory, but DuFay performs miracles with the form. “Apostolo glorioso” is glowing and beautifully florid, while “Ecclesie militantis,” possibly written for the anniversary of the coronation of Pope Eugenius IV, is a masterpiece of dense textures and rhythmic ingenuity. Both motets (and the other motets, too) receive glorious performances with incandescent singing (the high voices really shine). Add perfect blend and balance, with a nice addition of brass in “Ecclesie militantis,” and you have something very special.
The secular works are also filled with technical wizardry, and the members of Blue Heron, in groups of two or three voices, sing beautifully. This recording is a triumph for an American ensemble in a field long dominated by Europeans.
DU FAY • Motets, hymns, chansons, Sanctus Papale • Blue Heron, Scott Metcalfe • BHCD 1001
The most attractive aspect of this recital is its feeling of immediacy and freshness, an uncomplicated approach to performance practice matters. “Uncomplicated” need not mean uncritical, and as a sound recording is an artistic endeavour rather than a scholarly one, such an intangible impression is worth at least as much as careful research. The voices used are predominantly light and nimble, though capable of being appropriately veiled (as in Je me complains piteusement) or triumphant (the isorhythmic motets that open and close the recital).… For me, the high points are the Sanctus Papale, for which it is very welcome to have such a confident and poised rendition; and some of the later songs, for example Malheureux cuer, que veux tu faire, and the cheeky Puisque vous estez campieur, here recorded for the first time (to my knowledge) with the canon at its correct interval. After such a promising start, perhaps these singers will try their hand at some of the more neglected parts of the repertory. How long will we have to wait for an anthology of Busnoys’ songs, for instance? More, please.
DUFAY • Scott Metcalfe, dir.; Blue Heron •
BLUE HERON 1001
The first disc issued on this new vocal ensemble’s label makes a striking appearance, utterly professional in its presentation, with a varied program of music, an intelligent note reflecting the latest research on Dufay, and excellent color photos, all supplied in a digipack. It’s a hardly a surprise that the disc fulfills the elevated expectations. Metcalfe has pursued a career in performance with many groups, but since 1999 he has been directing Blue Heron in the Boston area. The program offers a Sanctus, motets, hymns, and chansons, a representative look at the music of Dufay, along with a couple of works of his contemporaries. One is an anonymous motet-chanson found in the Dijon chansonnier between two other anonymous pieces, but both of these were attributed to Ockeghem in other sources, and this piece has more recently been attributed to him as well. It belongs here because of its antecedents, the motet-chansons of Dufay. The rondeau by Hugo de Lantins (not to be confused with Arnold, who may or may not have been his brother) is included because both Lantins were associated with Dufay when he was serving the Malatestas in Rimini; Hugo and Dufay each wrote one movement of a Gloria-Credo Mass pair. Dunstable is also mentioned here as the possible composer of a verse of “Ave maris stella.”
This debut marks Blue Heron as a leading new actor in the field of early Renaissance music, both for studying the sources and bringing them to life. The three isorhythmic motets, neatly placed at beginning, middle, and end, are outstanding contributions, even if this genre has had special attention on records lately (22:2, 24:1, 29:4 for all three of these). The two alternatim-praxis hymns were both included in Schola Hungarica’s partial collection (13:1), but the rest of the hymns have been neglected on disc, one of the glaring lacunas in his discography. The seven chansons are a fine counterweight to the main recorded collections devotyed to this genre, which are all instrumentally accompanied.
The Sanctus papale, recorded by Paul Boepple and twice by Konrad Ruhland (2:5 for the newer one, now on a Sony CD) has been recorded only once in the CD era, an unfortunate voices-cum-instruments disc under Giuseppe Maletto reviewed elsewhere. It is an interesting work that adds the Eucharistic hymn Ave verum corpus as a trope, an entirely suitable notion for a Mass movement sung at the consecration of the Body and Blood of Christ. The notes for Maletto’s recording admit that it was probably written for the papal choir during one of the periods of Dufay’s membership, making the instruments entirely inappropriate. Hence this fifth recording is the first one that offers the music as the papal choir might have sung it. Altogether, this is one of the finest Dufay collections to come out in recent years, a nice survey to complement the more tightly focused programs devoted to the composer.
DUFAY: Chansons & Motets. Blue Heron / Scott Metcalfe.
Blue Heron 1001
This release is a refreshing antidote to a trend in early music performance that privileges the inspiration of the modern performers over the evidence of the music. In some recent performances of music by Guillaume Dufay it is the instrumentalists rather than the singers of these sensuous lyrics who are the most prominent (Jan/Feb 1997, July/Aug 2006).
The three ceremonial motets (formerly called “isorhythmic”) — “Apostolo Glorioso,” “Rite Majorem Jacobum,” and “Ecclesie Militantis” — have been recorded a number of times. Ignoring Helga Weber’s “big band” integral version of Dufay’s ceremonial motets (with a large instrumental group including drums or bells), Metcalfe’s performances with a small choir (about two voices per part) are similar in approach to Blachly (July/Aug 1997) and Van Nevel (Nov/Dec 2000), with the difference that Blachly uses only voices and Van Nevel uses a few more instruments. The Hilliard Ensemble’s recording of “Ecclesie militantis” with only five voices (EMI Reflexe 47628, 1987) is quite different from all of these. But Metcalfe achieves clarity of texture and intonation with his choir, like the Hilliard singers, and a better balance between his voices and only two instrumentalists than Van Nevel.
This anthology includes four examples of Dufay’s liturgical music. In the two hymn setting — “Ave Maris Stella” and “Aurea Luce” — Metcalfe has created an original mixture of chant, Dufay’s polyphony, and additional music, in one case attributed to Dunstable, and in the other case improvised polyphony. Both are interesting and well performed, but I would recommend the selection of hymns by Dufay and chant by the Schola Hungarica (Nov/Dec 1989). In the chanson-like motet, “Flos Florum,” Metcalfe allows his singers to create improvised ornaments on the fermatas towards the end of the work, following the suggestion of at least one scholar. For the performance of the so-called “Sanctus Papale,” he also puts into practice the suggestion that the work was meant for two choirs, one to sing the liturgical text and another to sing the trope, “Ave Verum Corpus”; both choirs then combine for the repeated “Hosanna” section.
An important place in this collection is given to seven chansons by Dufay. The performance choices range from all vocal to a mixture of voices and an instrument, drawing on soloists from the larger choir. Their approach is similar to the Medieval Ensemble of London in their complete recording of Dufay’s secular music (Oiseau-Lyre 452 557, 1981, deleted), including the use of two voices for the canons and a single fiddle playing the athletically independent contratenor parts of the chansons “Entre Vous, Gentils Amoureuux” and “Puisque Vous Estez Campieur”
In addition to the selections by Dufay, Metcalfe has also included single works by Dunstable, Hugo de Lantins, and a chanson or motet attributed to Ockeghem. The booklet includes an excellent introduction by Metcalfe and full texts and translations. It is an unfortunate sign of the times that this excellent recording is available only directly from the ensemble (www.blueheronchoir.org or email@example.com) or CD Baby (800-BUY-MYCD).
Two ancient masters in maze-like counterpoint
Founded in 1999, the Blue Heron Renaissance Choir has a concert schedule more modest than many vocal groups in town. This season featured just two performances, the second of which took place on Sunday afternoon. But judging by the near-capacity crowd that packed into First Church, the word is clearly out on this fine ensemble and its approach to repertoire from the distant past that combines scholarly rigor with vibrant, expressive musicianship. The concert also marked the release of the group’s first CD, a handsome collection of motets, hymns, chansons, and other works by Guillaume Du Fay.
To Blue Heron’s credit, the chorus did not simply reprise the material from its CD for Sunday’s concert, but rather broke fresh ground, presenting the much-admired but seldom-performed music of Perotin and Ockeghem. A program note freely acknowledged that there was little on the surface to link these men, Perotin living in the 13th century and Ockeghem in the 15th, but in a lively preconcert lecture, Harvard musicologist Thomas Kelly paired them simply as creators of the best music of their respective eras.
On this program Ockeghem was represented most substantially by his “Salve Regina” and by the Sanctus and Agnus Dei of his “Missa Mi Mi.” The music of this Franco-Flemish master unspools in a dazzling maze of crisscrossing lines, magnificent in their complexity and austere beauty. Follow the patterns closely and they are mind-bending; soften the focus of your concentration and this spacious music washes over you, as entrancing as a majestic cathedral.
Perotin is a composer about whom we know very little, beyond his mention in a famous anonymous medieval source. His monophonic “Beata Viscera” was given an exacting, pure-voiced performance by four women of Blue Heron, its virulently anti-Semitic verses omitted. But the heart of the Perotin offerings were the four-voice works “Viderunt Omnes” and “Sederunt Principes.” These pieces are extraordinary for the way single syllables are stretched out into extremely long drones and festooned with beautiful short cells of repeating melody, a kind of sublime minimalism avant la lettre.
Under the artistic leadership of Scott Metcalfe, the performances were handsomely polished and beautifully delivered, with keen attention paid to the clarity of interplay among voices. The program was warmly received, and the singers responded with a rewarding Du Fay encore, naturally enough, from their new CD.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.
from Period performances in Boston:
three remarkable concerts
Blue Heron Renaissance Choir, founded by Director Scott Metcalfe in 1999, has often performed later Renaissance works in its concert series. So it was a special treat for them to fill the sanctuary of Cambridge's beautiful First Congregational Church for a generous concert of extraordinary music by the nonpareil Guillaume Dufay (c. 1397-1474). Spot-on intonation, beautiful blend, and clarity of line are but a few of this ensemble's protean characteristics. They also illuminated this master's secular chansons, sacred isorhythmic motets, and hymns in fauxbourdon with richly colored tone and unfailing accuracy. In addition, the artfully concealed complexities of Dufay's works were fascinatingly explained in Metcalfe's elegant, erudite program notes, themselves a treat to savor. This was a very high-minded and rewarding concert, and the response of the audience, in rapt attention throughout and on their feet at the end, must have pleased the musicians.
Blue Heron Renaissance Choir—Clarity of fine crystal
…an absolutely splendid performance of a cappella music… everything that the music held was communicated.… As to the sound itself, imagine the clearest glass, the clarity of springs or of fine crystal, and you will form a fair picture of the transparency of their sound. And how Metcalfe played this phenomenal instrument!
On our concert at the Boston Early Music Festival
on June 15, 2005:
The program featured music from the 15th and 16th centuries by Josquin, Pierre de la Rue, and Heinrich Isaac, sung with tonal purity, accurate intonation, and careful balance.… Formidable technique went into writing these pieces and generating their emotional intensity. A comparable technique and involvement are required to perform them. For some people, Renaissance choral music has become a sound to bliss out to. When Metcalfe and his exceptional group are performing it, this becomes music to listen to intently—and blissfully.
Blue Heron named 2004 Classical Pick of the Year
in Choral Music
The city abounds in adventurous and capable choruses... But there is something unearthly about the work of the Blue Heron Renaissance Choir under the scholarly and imaginative direction of Scott Metcalfe.
Blue Heron performs with focus
… All this music is sensuous and intimately responsive to text…. The sound the Blue Heron singers produce, whether in groups of three, four, six, nine, or 10, is focused, absolutely in tune, carefully balanced, and both beautiful and expressive in tone quality.… Nothing…was unconsidered or careless, and everything was meaningful and richly satisfying.
The Blue Heron Renaissance Choir’s audiences have come to expect peak experiences almost as a matter of course. Two weeks ago Friday at the First Congregational Church in Cambridge, it was the Missa Spes nostra of Robert Jones that was prompting the astonishment and delight, and with the usual questions in tow. Who was this composer? And is there more?
First of all, it has to be said—really, proclaiming from the rooftops wouldn't be excessive—what an extraordinary chorus Blue Heron is. These singers radiate vocal health and ease of technique. Their ensemble sound is clear, firm in pitch, and rhythmically alive—so much so, in fact, that when director Scott Metcalfe’s program notes mentioned the “dense polyphony” of the five-centuries-old music on the program, I was brought up short: what denseness? …
It was a risky venture to plant two new pieces, Trisagion 1521 and Kyrie Gloria tibi Trinitas by Elliott Gyger, between the two halves of the Mass, but the former’s legerdemain (three voices in three languages, cannily intermingled) and formal shapeliness were disarming, as was the latter’s fusing of “old music” rhythms with scarily difficult “new music” intervals. For Blue Heron, it was all a breeze.
Choir brings mastery to polyphony
…a sweltering First Church was packed with listeners eager to hear the Blue Heron Renaissance Choir sing a demanding program of unaccompanied polyphonic music.… The rewards were ample. The audience had the rare privilege of hearing music that was both several centuries old and almost unknown. The piece was the Missa Spes nostra by Robert Jones…. The Mass is glowingly beautiful… Blue Heron was masterful. To the Gyger they brought absolute precision. In the Jones they offered perfect intonation, elegant phrasing, and the kind of full, radiant sound that belies Renaissance music's reputation as beautiful but restrained.
A Renaissance man of early music:
Blue Heron founder aims to make choir accessible
The Blue Heron Renaissance Choir is only four years old, but it is already one of Boston's front-line performing ensembles. Yet its founder and director Scott Metcalfe is determined to break through the perception that it’s a specialized group presenting a specialized repertory to a specialized audience.
With its intensity and warmth,
Blue Heron reaches rarified air
Sunday afternoon, Blue Heron really clinched it. If last summer’s concert by Scott Metcalfe’s early-music chorus was “genuinely, hair-raisingly world-class” (you read it here), this one was, if anything, even more so. Out on a limb we go: Founded in 1999, Blue Heron Renaissance Choir can now be placed among the Boston music community’s indispensables—it would be sheer folly to miss anything they put before the public.…
A more varied, more cosmopolitan assemblage of vocal resources is one advantage this chorus has over the Tallis Scholars. Total-blend seamlessness they can do, but (and here's the difference) what a range of fine-tuned individualities exists within that blend.…
All throughout, dynamics and vocal shading were at the furthest conceivable remove from abstract. The delicious trilled “r’s” in John Browne’s Salve regina offered one of the concerts small but intense pleasures; the force, warmth, and clarity of the massed sound in the “Agnus Dei” from the anonymous Missa Veterem hominem one of the big ones. It was also very intense. Technical sophistication, a knack for turning the First Congregational’s airy acoustic to striking advantage, and an imaginative expressivity that was often at white heat (you saw it in these singers’ faces)—some concert.
Blue Heron soars in spirited concert
… This wasn’t your everyday, local-good-works technical refinement: it was genuinely, hair-raisingly world-class.… Blue Heron. Remember the name. The group is that special.
Blue Heron Renaissance Choir is Boston’s answer to England’s Tallis Scholars… varied textures… an appealing sonority…
… I have not heard better chant singing from any choir, anywhere, in recent memory. The men of Blue Heron were spot on together, and the Sarum chant was resonant, flowing, and sung with great musicality…. Throughout the evening the intonation and overall balance were impeccable.