Last night in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, the California Bach Society gave the final San Francisco performance in its 45th anniversary season. The title of the program was Singet dem Herrn: JS Bach Motets and Chorales; and the major works were three of the six motets authenticated as compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach, BWV 225 “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” (sing unto the Lord a new song), BWV 226 “Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf” (the Spirit gives aid to our weakness), and concluding the program with BWV 227 “Jesu, meine Freude” (Jesus, my joy). Prior to leading BWV 227, Artistic Director Paul Flight reminded the audience that he had begun his tenure in 2006 with a performance of that motet, thus marking what might be called “an anniversary within an anniversary.” While some of the motets have instrumental parts, last night they were performed only with a continuo of gamba (Lynn Tetenbaum) and organ (Yuko Tanaka).
BWV 227 was definitely the high point of the evening. As has been previously observed, this is the longest and most structurally sophisticated of the authenticated motets. The overall structure sets Johann Franck’s verses for Johann Crüger’s 1653 chorale setting of the hymn for which the motet is named, but these verses alternate with settings of verses from Chapter 8 of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. The overall structure is a symmetrical arch with an elaborate double fugue in the center. In addition to the connections on opposite sides of the arch, so to speak, there are also “cross-strut” connections that make a diagram of all the relations (reproduced in a previous article about this piece) look like an elaborate engineering diagram for a tall pyramid. These involve the structures of the individual movements as well as the number of separate parts. BWV 227 makes one of the strongest cases for the proposition that Bach would give significant attention to design before beginning to write out the notes themselves.
Last night Flight may not have disclosed every last detail of that design; but he definitely conveyed the extent to which BWV 227 amounted to a well-conceived journey through Franck’s hymn verses alternating with “meditations” from the New Testament. The fugue at the center of this journey stood as both a “crowning achievement” (in the pyramid metaphor) and the turning point from which the music would begin to fold back on itself. The members of the chorus, for the most part, were responsive to Flight’s leadership, although the sight of many of those faces still locked into their part books suggested that the group had not yet really internalized their approach to performing this music.
Nevertheless, BWV 227 was the most satisfying portion of what Flight called “a short program with lots of notes.” The other two motets on the program were written for two four-part choirs; and Flight arranged his singers to reflect this division. Nevertheless, because he tended to go for a balanced overall blend, there was little sense of the division fundamental to the structure. Even the spatial cues seemed to be dampened by an overall dynamic uniformity. That uniformity also tended to mask much of the sophistication of Bach’s counterpoint. In the fugal passages one could barely detect the entry of the different voices, let alone some of Bach’s most dramatic stretto writing. The four chorale settings that alternated with the motets were somewhat more satisfying in their prevailing homophony, but counterpoint has always been the life force in Bach’s music. Thus, while the “flesh” of the performers may have been willing (perhaps even eager), the “spirit” of Bach’s music was decidedly weak.