Bach Collegium San Diego’s Splendid Baroque Motets and Canticles

Bach Collegium San Diego’s Friday concert at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Hillcrest offered the best of both worlds: one of the familiar, cherished motets by J. S. Bach and rarely heard works by Heinrich Schütz and Domenico Scarlatti.

Scott Allen Jarrett [photo courtesy of the artist]

When guest conductor Scott Allen Jarrett introduced Scarlatti’s 1715 Stabat Mater, he warned music lovers who have pigeonholed the younger Scarlatti as the facile composer of 500 rococo keyboard sonatas that they would be in for a shock. He was spot-on, for as the 10-member choir launched into this work’s complex polyphonic textures and unleashed the operatic drama of the “Inflammatus et accensus” stanza, my head was spinning. And by the time the choir sprinted through the two athletic, adjacent concluding “Amen” fugues, I raised the white flag of surrender.

In the Scarlatti, Jarrett chose tempos on the jubilant side and demanded dynamic shadings and articulations that faithfully interpreted the text. If the hard surfaces of the All Saints’ nave emphasized the bright treble voices, this favorable acoustic did not diminish the virile color of the lower men’s voices. In the customary Bach Collegium San Diego style, 10 professional singers produced a more vibrant and resonant sonority than a community choir four times its size.

Jarrett opened the concert with Heinrich Schütz’s stirring motet “Die Himmel erzãhlen die Ehre Gottes,” a Psalm text better known for Joseph Haydn’s effulgent setting in his oratorio “The Creation.” The choir’s explosive German declamation and robust ensemble made for a compelling combination, well supported by the hearty contingent of four continuo instrumentalists, Michael Sponseller on chamber organ, cellist Heather Vorwerck, Shanon Zusman on violone, and Daniel Zuluaga on theorbo.

Bach’s exalted motet Jesu, Meine Freude is based on a sturdy 17th-century chorale by Johann Crüger with a text by Johann Franck that is still sung in Lutheran congregations. In English-speaking lands, it is known as “Jesus, Priceless Treasure.” But for the Leipzig cantor, the chorale text was not enough, so he interspersed each stanza with verses from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans in order to expand the chorale’s theology in a sermonic fashion to rival the pedantic, long-winded Leipzig clergy under whose unsympathetic supervision Bach labored.

Jarrett and the chorus gave wing to Bach’s lyrical exhortations, fashioning more supple lines and more deft declamation than they used for the Schütz motet, which gave the motet a welcome compassionate character rather than the judgemental tone many choirs project.

The program included two additional estimable choral works, Claudio Monteverdi’s inventive, highly charged a cappella setting of the Magnificat from his 1610 Marian Vespers and Heinrich Schütz’s short setting of the Nunc Dimittus canticle in German, “Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener.” Requiring singers placed in a remote part of the church some distance from the choir and instruments, these echo and antiphonal effects added an element of charm to a program replete with deeper satisfactions.

This concert by the Bach Collegium San Diego was performed on March 2, 2018, at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in San Diego’s Hillcrest neighborhood. The program will be repeated on March 3 at Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church in Cardiff.


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