Last night in Calvary Presbyterian Church, the San Francisco Bach Choir, conducted by their Artistic Director Corey Jamason, performed five of the six motets by Johann Sebastian Bach given consecutive BWV numbers 225–230. The “missing motet” was BWV 228, Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir (fear not, for I am with you); but the remaining five were not presented in “BWV order.” Wolfgang Schmieder’s catalog also includes a BWV 231 motet for four-part chorus and continuo, “Sei Lob und Preis mit Ehren” (give glory, praise, and honor); but this is just an alternative set of words and instrumentation for the second movement of the BWV 26 cantata Gottlob! nun geht das Jahr zu Ende (praise God!, we come to the end of the year).
Of the “basic six” motets, some require only continuo, while other have accompaniment by a string ensemble. At last night’s concert organist Esther Lam covered for the string parts, with continuo support from Elisabeth Reed on cello and John Dornenburg on violone, all performing on period instruments. Only one of the motets has a date that has been assigned with certainty.
Jamason began his program with the longest of the motets, BWV 227, Jesu, meine Freude (Jesus, my joy). The title is that of a chorale by Johann Crüger that first appeared in 1653, setting a text by Johann Franck. Each verse is nine lines long, given a 3+3+2+1 structure by the music in an AAB form with the final line echoing the opening phrase. Bach set six of the verses of the hymn, alternating them with movements setting verses from the eighth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans.
The overall architecture of these eleven movement shows Bach at his most elegantly symmetrical. I reconstructed the above diagram from John Eliot Gardiner’s notes for his Erato recording (ECD 88117) of the motets (including BWV 231). It shows an elaborate balancing of settings in four (SATB), five (SSATB), and three voices. (The fourth movement is SSA, and the eighth is ATB.) The chorale is given the same basic harmonic setting for the first and eleventh movements, embellished settings in the third and seventh, and “free” settings in the fifth and ninth. The central movement is a five-voice fugue. Note, also, that the measure counts between the first five and last five movements differ by only one.
How much of this will register with the listener will probably depend on how familiar the listener is with the music. However, through the physical disposition of his singers, Jamason could provide an informative spatial account of how Bach kept varying the resources of his five-part chorus. Thus, if one was not explicitly aware of how the two three-voice settings were paired, one could still sense how the sound had shifted from one side of the performing area to the other.
The San Francisco Bach Choir is basically an amateur organization. However, the root of the word “amateur” is the Latin verb for “love.” Jamason himself clearly has a deep love for this repertoire, and he has assembled a chorus whose members share that love. Thus, if there were the occasional ragged moments in the interpretation of the score, they rarely impeded the prevailing spirit devoted to sharing this music with an attentive audience.
The remaining motets were all far shorter. The shortest of these was the concluding offering, BWV 230, “Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden” (praise the Lord, all nations), which sets four lines of text followed by a joyous triple-meter alleluia setting. The remaining three all seem to have been composed for memorial occasions and were thus suitable for the tone of the Lenten period. The only one with a specific date is BWV 226, Der Geist hilt unser Schwachheit auf (the Spirit helps us in our weakness), composed for the burial of Johann Heinrich Ernesti, headmaster of the Thomasschule in Leipzig, in October of 1729. BWV 225, Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied (sing to the Lord a new song), probably also dates from Bach’s Leipzig period; and Christoph Wolff has suggested that it may have been written for pedagogical purposes, like many of his compositions for solo instrument. That leaves BWV 229, Komm, Jesu, komm (come, Jesus, come), scored for double choir, again with elegant spatial effects, particularly when the choirs join forces in the final movement for an eight-voice fugue rich in chromatic dissonance.
All this clocked in at around 90 minutes (including intermission). Nevertheless, that relatively modest duration covered a substantial tranche of Bach’s choral portfolio. This was an evening rich with opportunities for serious listening coupled with a joyful appreciation of Bach’s passionate expressiveness. Those who missed it need to know that there will be a second performance this afternoon at 4 p.m., again at Calvary Presbyterian Church, at the northwest corner of Fillmore Street and Jackson Street. For those who have found my own attempts at providing background to be inadequate, there will also be a pre-concert lecture at 3 p.m.