The Oratorio Chorale called its Saturday evening concert at St. Mary’s Church in Falmouth “Bach +” – and given that Bach is the better known of the two composers on the program, that was probably natural, although the other, Heinrich Schütz, is not exactly an obscurity. It made sense in other ways, too. After all, Emily Isaacson, the choir’s director, is a founder and the associate artistic director of the new Portland Bach Festival, so the concert was, in a way, a reminder that the festival will have its second season in June.
But on purely musical grounds, “Schütz +” would have been a more accurate title.
Bach was represented by a motet, “Jesu, Meine Freude” (BWV 227). It is a magnificent work – a thoroughly Bachian expansion on a Lutheran hymn, with a double fugue at its heart – but it is also fairly short, running just over 20 minutes. Its companion, Schütz’s “Musikalische Exequien,” is nearly 15 minutes longer, and it is a grander conception in just about every way, with alternating duets, trios, solos and choruses in a three-part structure.
Both are funeral works. Bach composed his motet in 1723, in honor of Johanna Maria Käsin, the wife of Leipzig’s postmaster. The Schütz is a requiem for Count Heinrich II of Reuss-Gera, the ruler of a principality in central Germany who died in 1634. The count actually had a hand in the work’s creation, selecting the texts for Schütz to set, and offering advice about the kind of music he wanted his mourners to hear.
Two very different versions of the German Baroque style were on display here. Schütz, whose life straddled the 16th and 17th centuries, studied in Venice, and he composed in an Italian-influenced harmonic language not very different from that of Monteverdi, although with the distinct beginnings of a German musical accent. By Bach’s time, a century later, those darker Germanic elements were dominant.
Isaacson and her singers – which for this concert also included five members of the excellent St. Mary Schola – made a pointed distinction between those styles. The Bach, which opened the program, had a warm, weighty sound, meditative and sober, and with an overarching sense of gravity, even in the chorales that celebrate death as a liberation from the struggles of life. The choir’s ensemble was tight and appealingly transparent, for the most part. If passages in some of the chorales sometimes sounded murky, flaws were few and fleeting; the more lasting impression was Isaacson’s thoughtful phrasing, and the fluidity she brought to the motet as a whole.
The performance did, however, raise the perennial question of how large the choirs for Bach’s works should be – a pertinent issue, certainly, in a city hosting a Bach festival. In 1981, the musicologist Joshua Rifkin published a paper in which he used payment records and surviving performance materials from St. Thomas’s Church in Leipzig during Bach’s time there to show that Bach’s choirs were quite small, often only one or two singers to a part, a far cry from the symphonic scale choirs that sang Bach through much of the 20th century.
It was compelling information, but the counterargument – that the number of choristers Bach could afford does not necessarily reflect his preference – was compelling as well. I recently was on a panel with Christoph Wolff, one of the world’s pre-eminent Bach scholars (and the director of the Bach-Archiv, Leipzig), and had an opportunity to ask him whether he preferred large choirs or single voices in Bach’s choral music. He said “something in between,” without giving a number.
Isaacson’s choir numbered 35 – small, but edging toward the large side, and big enough to give the performance a slightly old-fashioned sound, at a time when most Baroque ensembles take Rifkin’s findings into account.
The Schütz benefited from a reading that was lighter in texture and brighter in spirit, thanks partly to both Schütz’s scoring, which moves briskly between small ensembles and the full choir, and the count’s choice of texts, which look forward more eagerly to the joys of salvation in the afterlife. But that is not to discount the clarity and energy of the choir’s superb performance, which included fine solo work by members of the two choirs.
Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at: