Quire Cleveland fills St. John’s Cathedral with shining artistry

The sound of voices wafting radiantly through space must be one of the closest equivalents we have to that elusive realm known as Paradise. Quire Cleveland’s concert Wednesday at St. John’s Cathedral in downtown Cleveland proved just such an experience.

To hear this professional choir singing Renaissance and Baroque music in which it specializes was to know something on the order of bliss. The ensemble’s program, “Lobet den Herrn: German Music for Quire,” was packed with sacred works by some of the greats of the 15th through 18th centuries, including composers that deserve more than footnotes in music history.

The towering figure, hands down, was Johann Sebastian Bach. But he had inestimable assistance here from other eminences of the times. From the composer of that omnipresent instrumental piece known simply as Pachelbel’s Canon, for instance, there was a wondrous motet for double choir, “Gott ist unser Zuversicht,” which folds the famous melody “Ein feste Burg” into its vivacious narrative.

Aside from Bach, Pachelbel and several others (Samuel Scheidt, Heinrich Schuetz), most of the night’s composers likely aren’t household names to the bulk of society. That’s partly what made this program, like everything Quire Cleveland offers, so enticing: it managed to make something new and thrilling of music that is extremely old.

The concert was led by guest conductor Scott Metcalfe, whom local audiences might know as the violinist of the early-music ensemble Les Delices. Metcalfe excels not only with fiddle. Standing before Quire Cleveland, he was a model of supple phrasing and keen rhythmic impulse.

Metcalfe presided over music grouped according to genre or sacred source. He began with five settings of the hymn “Christ ist erstanden,” finding subtle nuances in the diverse materials. Bach’s four-voice setting stood out for its rich interplay of lines and harmonies without dwarfing the distinctive beauty of versions by Johann Walter and Johann Heugel.

The choristers were attentive to the music’s varied textures and dynamic levels, bringing serene loveliness to a collection of German liturgical pieces by Walter, Ludwig Senfl, Johannes Eccard and Bach. Senfl’s ability to unfold an Old Testament text in slow, luminous phrases was evident in “Da Jakob nu das Kleid ansach,” which recounts Jacob’s anguish over the death of his son, Joseph.

Organist Peter Bennett joined Metcalfe and the choir for the second half’s menu of more works from the Old Testament by Johann Hermann Schein and pieces for double choir by Scheidt, Schuetz and Pachelbel.

Finally, there was “Ein Bachfest” devoted to music by You-Know-Who and relatives Johann Michael and Johann Christoph. Quire Cleveland, grouped in various configurations, sang these and the program’s other works with the sophistication, cohesion and clarity that have become the ensemble’s hallmarks.