This led to a Tarquinio Merula canzonetta for soprano and lute. In this short 1636 duo, the Virgin Mary (soprano Alice Teyssier) holds the baby Jesus in her arms, trying to get the restless infant to sleep, though she is overcome with premonitions of the suffering that awaits him. The lute (played by the fine Arash Noori) is curiously fixated on two notes, though these recurring pitches are often decorated with filigree.
Next came the Russian composer Galina Ustvolskaya’s radically unconventional Symphony No. 5, “Amen” (1989), lasting just 15 minutes and scored for a curious ensemble: violin, oboe, trumpet, tuba, big wooden box and a speaker (Gleb Kanasevich), who says the Lord’s Prayer in Russian. The music is at once grave and grumpy, utterly serious and almost comic, swinging along in a foursquare meter like some slow march with a steady tread, each thematic note encrusted in a dour harmonic block. Then Mr. Noori returned to play Alessandro Piccinini’s “Toccata Cromatica” for solo lute (1623), a work in which lyrical strands spin out into soft-spoken swirling passagework.
Ms. Teyssier was the compelling soloist, singing Maria Maddalena, in the Sciarrino piece, which over 30 taut minutes tries to evoke the scene of the mystic nun issuing her clipped bursts of words. The instrumentalists become her eight attentive novices, sitting for long stretches doing nothing, or just breathing in anticipation (the sounds of, say, a flutist playing a short tone then audibly inhaling), or sometimes muttering some jittery, quiet mini-phrase. Then Ms. Teyssier’s Maria would sing a frenzied burst of pent-up notes, and the instruments would scurry, trying to scribble down her words. Jacob Ashworth, Cantata Profana’s artistic director, conducted a suspenseful account of this radically episodic and spacey score.
The audience in pews sat in almost complete darkness; the players were illuminated by theatrical lighting, so you had to give yourself over to this contemplative program, even when you could not read the translations of texts, even if you lost track of what piece was being played. A large and appreciative audience seemed ready to do so on a chilly Friday in a Chelsea sanctuary.