What a fascinating program. The Song Company, under the musical direction of their new leader Antony Pitts, sang three Bach motets alongside choral music from the 19th century which specifically reflected Bach’s influence. The title of the concert, Bach and Forward, may have given an idea of the chronology of the music sung, but in fact the music by Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Brahms in this program was even more obviously backward-looking than Bach’s own – and we must remember that Bach’s contrapuntal music was considered at least 100 years out of date when he wrote it. But this was seriously interesting programming.
Antony Pitts, who has taken over the musical direction of the Company from Roland Peelman from this year, has brought a number of English distinctions with him. This concern for exciting programming is one in which the English have been leading for 20 years. It was also apparent that he prefers a typically English choral sound, where the women sound at least a little like choir-boys, instead of the altogether more robust sound favoured by Peelman. This was more apparent in the Bach motets than in their singing of the 19th century music, where, especially in Brahms’ beautiful motet Warum its das Licht gegeben a greater warmth suited the music well.
Another aspect of the programming that we in Australia tend to be bit more precious about is arranging music in a different way from that which the composer might have imagined. So the Company sang the actual chorales in some organ chorale preludes; cellist Daniel Yeadon played some of these too; and with the wonderful continuo player Neal Peres da Costa he played the last movement of Brahms’ first cello sonata – on a baroque cello with a portative organ instead of a piano. This was one of two extraordinary feats in this concert; the other being a Swingle-singers like rendering by the singers of the eight-part Contrapuntus from the Art of Fugue, a reminder the staggering virtuosity of which the Song Company is capable. All these, what you might call arrangements, served to underscore one of the perhaps neglected facts of performance of any older music – they are all arrangements in a sense.
Antony Pitts pointed out in his engaging talk to the audience that while the 19th century composers represented in this concert were uncertain or even anguished in their relation to the Christian faith in which the texts of their pieces were embedded, Bach had a complete certainty. Loving patterns and balance, his music reflects this, said Pitts. Well, there are certainly patterns and symmetry in these motets, but they are so heavily masked, even subverted, by the contrapuntal questioning that, in the first two motets at least, what was most pronounced was an impression of profound uncertainty. In Fürchte dich nicht, for example, the phrase “I have called you by your name” which is set fugally against a chorale, is paired with a descending chromatic line which seems to undermine the positive meaning of the words again and again. Bach often illustrates the negative statements of his texts, but here the statement is positive, and this pulling the rug out from under it is very disturbing indeed. In fact, by comparison with that, Mendelssohn’s motet on the chorale Aus tiefer Not (in deepest need) appeared quite stable.
In the end, the remarkable thing about the music in this concert was not just that all of it was written in an ancient style, called Prima prattica (old style) already in 1600, but that the counterpoint was so chromatic, so undermining of confident major-mode music, and sometimes peering over the edge of the tonal tradition altogether. The performance of such a program was a tour de force, showing us once again what a brilliant outfit the Song Company is, and whetting the appetite for further concerts under their new director. What will they think of next?