‘Let Satan send bad weather,” the chorus sings in Bach’s “Jesu, mein Freude.” That motet was part of an imaginative program juxtaposing Bach and English composer William Byrd that was assembled by Handel and Haydn Society artistic director Harry Christophers. And Friday evening at Jordan Hall, with the temperature outside hovering near freezing and no spring in sight, the words struck a defiant note.
Bach, when he doesn’t have the bill to himself, is usually the earliest composer on a concert program, so it was intriguing to find him coupled with Byrd (circa 1540-1623) in an evening that featured the Handel and Haydn Chorus. To be Catholic during the rule of Queen Elizabeth I and then King James I, as was Byrd, was to invite persecution and even charges of treason, and Byrd’s music speaks to that plight. The four a cappella pieces Handel and Haydn performed seemed to echo down the centuries, their rich harmonies conjuring the voices of countless saints and martyrs, not to mention English predecessors like Fayrfax, Taverner, Tallis, Tye, and Sheppard. By comparison, Bach’s seemed a voice crying in the wilderness, seeking comfort and reassurance directly from God.
The evening began with the plainsong “Veni creator spiritus” as an introit and invocation, just six men at first, and then the remaining 22 singers processing in groups through the audience and up onstage to form a double chorus. Byrd’s “Laudibus in sanctis,” its text drawing on Psalm 150, was a startling contrast, the voices an explosion of warlike trumpets and resounding timbrels.
The two solo pieces were exceptionally gratifying. Soprano Margot Rood was bright and sharply focused in “Bist du bei mir,” long attributed to Bach but likely written by his contemporary Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel. Tenor Stefan Reed was heavy and rich in Byrd’s “Ye sacred muses,” an elegy for his friend and colleague Thomas Tallis.
The remaining Byrd pieces were so beautiful, I wished there could have been more of them on a program that ran just 95 minutes. A quartet of Sonja Dutoit Tengblad, Emily Marvosh, Patrick Waters, and Woodrow Bynum created a serene interplay in the “Agnus Dei” from his Mass for Four Voices. And the chorus was radiant in his motet “Ave verum corpus,” swelling fervently on the words “Jesu fili Mariae.”
The three Bach motets — “Jesu, meine Freude,” “Komm, Jesu, Komm,” and “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” — had both drama and dignity. The energy of the chorales varied according to the text; the fugues were exemplary in their clarity, with no sacrifice of feeling; diction everywhere was excellent. Discreet support was provided by a continuo group of cello, violone, and organ. I particularly liked the way Christophers turned the “Gute Nacht” section of “Jesu, meine Freude” into a lullaby. And the closing “Singet dem Herrn” spiraled from exuberant into dizzyingly ecstatic. Spring inside, if not out.