Although it's commissioned works from contemporary composers and had a 1994 crossover hit collaborating with a Norwegian saxophonist, the early music Hilliard Ensemble stuck to Renaissance music Saturday at the Getty Center.
The male a cappella group brought its persuasive mix of purity and grittiness to a diverse program of religious and secular music that ranged from solo opportunities -- countertenor David James ("In a garden so green") and baritone Gordon Jones ("My love she mourneth") -- to rich five-part polyphony. Tenors Rogers Covey-Crump and Steven Harrold and bass-baritone Robert MacDonald completed the ensemble.
The favored religious composer was the little-known Nicolas Gombert (circa 1495-circa 1560), a late student of the luminary Josquin des Prez and a musician who, midcareer, as the program notes put it, was "sentenced to the galleys for gross indecency with a choirboy."
Even there, however, he managed to compose. The ensemble expertly sang his "Missa Media Vita," intercutting its movements with his "Quam pulchra es" and "Salve Regina."
Gombert's close-layered, imitative polyphony creates effects like those successive starbursts in fireworks displays. But his sensuous, florid designs were no match in impact for the sincerity and humility of Josquin's "Tu solus qui facis mirabilia" (You alone, who perform wonders).
The secular songs tended to focus on love lost and betrayed, with William Cornysh's "Ah Robin" sung tenderly by Covey-Crump, Harrold and Jones.
There was one especially provocative selection. Imagine an age with a popular song (the anonymous "Passacalli della vita") whose refrain is "Bisogna morire" (You must die) -- whether, as the Hilliard wistfully ran down the list, you're young, old, healthy, infirm, singing, dancing, eating or drinking. Try getting that recorded today.