It's that time of year again: Christmastime, when, depending on where you live, Handel's Messiah and Bach's Christmas Oratorio blanket the classical concert landscape, and you can't turn on a classical music radio station without hearing some snippet from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker within minutes. In other words, it's not exactly the most wonderful time of the year for diverse programming. But audiences at the Folger Shakespeare Library on Saturday were treated to a delightful menu of seasonal English music presented by the Folger Consort, the library's early music ensemble-in-residence, and invited guest performers.

Starting with 14th-century motets, the musicians bowed, plucked, trumpeted and sang their way, piece by piece, all the way to the early 20th century in what they called "sort of an abridged (very abridged) history of the English-singing peoples". With the sets of pieces entertainingly broken up by readings from the 1619 play A Christmas Messe, a comical battle between beef and boar for the centerpiece spot on the Christmas banquet table, the performance nodded to all the moments the holiday season can bring – moments of intimacy, peacefulness, rollicking good cheer and furious kitchen bickering.

While early music can catch your ear with its complex rhythms and surprising harmonies, such concerts can often feel monotonous because of style constraints and the expressive limitations of period instruments. But the Folger Consort wonderfully varied the program they presented in the small, square theater whose wooden-beamed balconies were decked out in Christmas garlands. The roughly 500-year time span of the music naturally led to diverse sounds, but it was the intermixing of works for different instrument combinations with solo vocal pieces and duets, a cappella motets and solely instrumental works that kept the concert fresh right up through the end. The anonymous motet There is no rose, presented as a mezzo solo with viol and harp, was simple and delicate, while on the next song, Nowell sing we, the whole ensemble bounced and danced their way through expressive stanzas sung by different soloists and dynamically differentiated refrains.

The Folger Consort's founding members (Robert Eisenstein: vielle, viol, recorder; Christopher Kendall: lute, citole) and their guests (Mary Springfels: vielle, viol; Webb Wiggins: organ,) showed off their mastery of multiple instruments throughout the performance, despite a wiggly opening on the complex interlocking parts of Sub Arturo plebs/Fons citharizancium. Guest Dan Meyers proved himself to be a true Renaissance man, moving from the recorder to the flute to the trombone to the tambourine, and even repeatedly joining the singers with a solid baritone.

The four dedicated vocalists shone most when singing together, all showing great agility on the puzzle of running melodies and countermelodies and incredibly clear diction that made moments of unison luminously pure. Their palpable delight in such energetic songs such as Tappster, dryngker made me want to raise an ale mug in toast. Soprano Crossley Hawn sang the Renaissance works with a focused yet light tone, letting it blossom fully in the high descant of the later works. A tendency to cover her face with her music unfortunately limited her emotional reach. Still, Hawn blended beautifully with mezzo-soprano P. Lucy McVeigh, who herself had surprisingly pure, light high notes in addition to a soft, round warmth in the lower register. Oliver Mercer brought an even, serviceable tenor to the group, though he sounded somewhat pinched and muted. Baritone William Sharp grounded the ensemble with buoyant weight before showing off easy high notes, thoughtful expression and a surprisingly fast vibrato in Ralph Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on Christmas Carols.

Originally written in 1912 for baritone, chorus and orchestra, the Folger Consort adapted Fantasia for period instruments and a vocal quintet. Springfels played the opening cello solo plaintively on the viol, and the singers backing soloist Sharp shaped hummed lines thoughtfully and delivered text robustly. It was nice to hear the piece in a new way, but the arrangement felt sparse and structurally exposed, lacking the moments where rich crescendos of bowed strings and many singers swell into a wave of sound like a winter wind suddenly sweeping in.

The evening ended with the final portion of the play A Christmas Messe. Actor Rick Foucheux had been uproariously dishing it out in segments throughout the entire concert. A one-man show, Foucheux presented all the characters of this culinary battle – including a hungry belly, a pirate-like piece of beef and an entitled boastful boar's head – with vigorous physicality and ample vocal relish. His final entreaty as the cook to clap for the performers, either out of praise or relief, was hardly needed; the audience heartily applauded before heading out into the night that was lit up by the glow from the neighboring Capitol's dome and warmed by the lingering aftertaste of a pleasurable performance.

***11