English composers have always been partial to St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music. Handel and Britten wrote marvelous cantatas to her, but Purcell started them all off. In an excess of enthusiasm he wrote four such cantatas, all splendid and flowery works imbued with his own special mix of naivete and sophistication.

Last night in the National Shrine's Crypt Church, Robert Shafer led the 24-voice National Shrine Choir in a sparkling performance of the last of these cantatas, and followed it with the delightful birthday ode to Queen Mary, "Com Ye Sons of Art."

Shafer's choir is an impressively flexible and adaptable ensemble. At one moment they sound like the most intimate of chamber groups, dancing lightly through "The Day that Such a Blessing Gave," but moments later they blast forth like a cast of thousands, declaiming "See Nature Rejoicing" with convincing power.

Most impressive, however, is the quality of the solo performances by members of the choir. In Guy Manning and Christopher Trueblood, Shafer has two fine counter-tenors. Manning was superb in the Cecilian Ode, but Trueblood's lighter and somewhat more agile voice might have been a better choice for the opening lines of "Come Ye Sons of Art." Nice work was also turned in by soprano Dorothy Kingston and bass Loren Jacobson.

The orchestra sounded well rehearsed and, for a pick-up group, unusually secure.