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CD reviews

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Motets

[I] Gli Scarlattistia
Dir: Jochen M. Arnold

rec: Feb 28 - March 2, 2009, Hildesheim, Michaeliskloster
edition chrismon - [ISBN] 978-3-86921-017-9 (© 2009) (68'08")

[II]Flemish Radio Choirb
Elise Christiaens, violone; Bart Naessens, organ
Dir: Bo Holten

rec: June 25 - 27, 2007, Heverlee, Jezuïetenkerk
Glossa - GCDSA 922205 (© 2007) (69'43")

[III] Domkantorei St. Pölten; cappella nova graz; Solamente Nuturali Bratislavac
Dir: Otto Kargl

rec: Sept 6, 2008 (live), St. Pölten, Domkirche
ORF - SACD 3052 (© 2008) (56'28")

[IV] Sette Vocid
Dir: Peter Kooy

rec: Jan 2009, Kirchheim an der Weinstraße, Kirche St Andreas
Ramée - RAM 0906 (© 2009) (70'23")

[V] Bach Collegium Japane
Dir: Masaaki Suzuki

rec: June 2009, Kobe, Shoin Women's University (chapel)
BIS - SACD-1841 (© 2009) (75'28")

O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht (BWV 118; second version)e; Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied (BWV 225)abcde; Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf (BWV 226)abcde; Jesu, meine Freude (BWV 227)abcde; Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir (BWV 228)abcde; Komm, Jesu, komm (BWV 229)abcde; Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden (BWV 230)abde; Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn (BWV Anh 159)abde

One would think more than enough recordings of Bach's motets are available. But every year some new interpretations are released. Just two years ago I reviewed three of them, and since then at least five new recordings have been produced. There are several approaches to Bach's motets which are also reflected in the recordings to be reviewed here.

First there is a difference in the number of singers which are involved in the performance. For a long time Bach's motets were performed with large choirs, but in time the size of the choirs was reduced, and more recent performances are by vocal ensembles of mostly 16 to 20 singers. But there are still recordings with pretty large choirs. The recording by Otto Kargl falls into that category. He uses two independent choirs, and although the number of singers involved is not mentioned in the booklet it sounds as if they are quite large.
The choirs of Jochen Arnold, Bo Holten and Masaaki Suzuki are smaller: 24, 20 and 18 respectively. The division over the four voice types is different, though: Holten has six of each, Arnold six sopranos and six altos, but four tenors and four basses, whereas Suzuki has four of each, with the exception of the sopranos which are six.
In recent years recordings of Bach's cantatas have been released with one voice per part. In his performance of the motets Peter Kooy follows this practice, although he is not consistent: in the five-part motet Jesu, meine Freude all singers participate.

A second issue is the use of instruments. Only for one motet, Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf, instrumental parts are extant. From this interpreters have drawn the conclusion that this must have been common practice in Bach's time, and opted for instruments playing colla parte in other motets as well. Both Masaaki Suzuki and Otto Kargl have included instruments in their performances. Peter Kooy, Jochen Arnold and Bo Holten are performing the motets with basso continuo only.

The third issue is the question which motets are authentic. The authenticity of Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden is sometimes doubted. Four of the recordings include this motet, but Otto Kargl has left it out. No reason for that is given in the booklet.
The motet Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn, on the other hand, was once attributed to Johann Sebastian Bach, then to Johann Christoph Bach. Recently Bach scholars tend to consider it an authentic composition by Johann Sebastian after all. It is included in four of the recordings, with the exception of Otto Kargl's.
Masaaki Suzuki is the only one who also recorded O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht (BWV 118). As it is generally considered a cantata - which explains the BWV number - it is mostly not included in recordings of Bach's motets. But Bach himself entitled it Motetto, which is a good reason to include it, even though it is quite different in that it has independent instrumental parts. The instruments start with an introduction before they are joined by the voices.

The motet Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied also raises questions. At the end of the second section Bach asks for a repeat: "The second verse is as the first, except that the choirs change around; the first choir sings the chorale, and the second the aria". But there are differences of opinion on what Bach means with "second verse". The American musicologist Robin A. Leaver suggests to interpret "second verse" as the one following the third, meaning the fourth. Masaaki Suzuki seems to be aware of this but in his production notes he suggests it is possible "that Bach may have originally intended to adopt the idea but then decided against it at a later stage". Jochen Arnold is the only one who has followed Bach's instruction, but he takes "second verse" litterally, meaning that we hear the second verse of the chorale 'Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren'. It is a bit odd that this way we hear the third verse first and the second after that. In the other three recordings the whole issue is passed over.

Considering the different character of the various recordings it is not easy to compare them. So I start by paying attention to Otto Kargl's performances, then I compare the three recordings with smaller choirs, and lastly I'll say something about the recording by Peter Kooy.

Previously I have been impressed by some of Otto Kargl's performances with his cappella nova graz, both on disc and in live recordings which I heard on the radio. Therefore I am quite disappointed about his recording of Bach's motets. The main deficit is the size of the two choirs. The sound is pretty massive and lacks transparency. As a result the text isn't always clearly understandable and the middle voices don't come out enough. Choirs of this size also lack the flexibility Bach's motets require. And it is probably also due to the size of the choirs that the tempi are often slowish.
Generally there is a lack of dynamic accents and of differentiation between notes, and there is too much legato-singing. Particularly unsatisfying is Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied. Even Jesu, meine Freude is performed chorally, and the result is very disappointing.
Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf comes off best, with more accents than elsewhere. Fürchte dich nicht is also a little better than the general level of this recording. But as a whole this recording is no worthwhile addition to the catalogue.

Next the three recordings with smaller choirs. There are many similarities between Arnold and Suzuki, and after listening to both of them I found it hard to decide which one I preferred. Bo Holten's recording is quite different from these two, mainly because of a general lack of text expression. He mostly opts for pretty fast tempi, which in itself is not a problem. But as there is a lack of accents and the hierarchy of the notes is mostly ignored the performances tend to become superficial and flat. Ich lasse dich nicht, on the other hand, is very slow, and quite boring.
The text expression is often absent, and too few words are singled out. In regard to text expression some episodes in Jesu, meine Freude are relatively well-done.
Holten is also rather inconsistent in his scoring. In the first section of Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied some passages are sung by solo voices, but I can't think of any reason to do so. Jesu, meine Freude has a symmetrical structure, and that should be reflected in the performance. The third and eighth sections are trios, but in Holten's performance the former is sung by solo voices, whereas the latter is performed by the whole choir.

After having heard a rather disappointing recording of choral works by Handel I didn't expect that much from Gli Scarlattisti. But when I started listening I was immediately struck by the quality and the character of the performances which in many ways correspond to how I think Bach's motets should be performed. The general features of Jochen Arnold's interpretations are a clear articulation, the observance of the hierarchy of the notes - a clear distinction, partly through dynamic contrasts, between good and bad notes -, mostly well-chosen tempi and a good exposition of the rhythmic pulse. Especially beautiful is Komm, Jesu, komm, with some excellent text expression. The beautiful swaying rhythm at the last episode of the first section, 'Du bist der rechte Weg', is magnificent.
Ich lasse dich nicht is highly expressive, in the right tempo. The chorale is also beautifully sung. In Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf the word "Seufzen" is given full attention.
There are also some flaws, though: Jesu, meine Freude is not entirely satisfying as some opportunities of text expression are overlooked. The central section of this motet, 'Ihr aber seid nicht fleischlich', isn't given enough weight. But on the whole I am very pleased with this recording which I rate as high as Suzuki's.

The Bach Collegium Japan is recording all of Bach's cantatas, and has already recorded Bach's large-scale vocal works, like the Passions and the B-minor Mass. So it was only a matter of time until the motets would be recorded. Of the three recordings with a small choir Suzuki is the only one to use instruments playing colla parte. It gives some additional colour, and the different instrumental scoring of the two choirs enhances the contrasts between them. The tempi are more or less the same as those Jochen Arnold has chosen, and they are mostly convincing. The generally good articulation and accentuation prevent the performances from sounding hurried. But the rhythmic pulse is mostly less clearly exposed than in Arnold's interpretation.
In particular the chorales are often too straightforward, with too much legato, for instance in the second section of Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied. Jesu, meine Freude is one getting of the best performances on this disc, although the central section is not given enough weight here, like in Arnold's recording. The second section, 'Es ist nun nichts', is remarkable fast. The solo voices in the trios are giving fine performances, and in the first trio the balance between the two sopranos and the alto is remarkably good.
Notable is the 'allabreve' section in Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf which in most performances is taken at a slower tempo than the first section. But Suzuki has chosen a faster tempo instead. In Ich lasse dich nicht there is too much difference in tempo between the two sections. The second is really too fast, and the chorale too much legato. But, like I said, I can't choose between Suzuki and Arnold. They both have pros and cons, but in both the former outweigh the latter.

Lastly, Peter Kooy. His performance is really different because of the scoring with solo voices. This is a remarkable ensemble in which the voices blend perfectly. The consonants are of great beauty and a serenity as one seldom hears in a recording. There are some passages, though, where the soprano Hana Blazikova and the bass Dominik Wörner tend to dominate a little; sometimes I had liked the middle voices to have a bit more presence.
What particularly striked me is the amount of text expression. Of all performances reviewed here this one is most speechlike (although Arnold comes very close). The text is clearly understandable, and there is some nice dynamic shading, in the interest of an expression of the text.
The tempi are mostly quite moderate; in fact, Kooy is generally the slowest of all. Sometimes the rhythmic pulse is a bit underexposed as a result of this. I think some tempi are too slow - Komm, Jesu, komm, and the second section of Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied in particular -, but that is compensated by the amount of expression. And some motets are given a quite dramatic interpretation, like Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf and Fürchte dich nicht. All in all I consider this interpretation one of the best in the category of performances with one voice per part.

To sum it up: performances with large choirs are out of step with everything we know about the circumstances under which Bach performed his vocal works. Even smaller choirs like those Jochen Arnold, Bo Holten and Masaaki Suzuki use are questionable, although they come closer to Bach's own practice. A performance with one voice per part as is practiced - although inconsistently - by Peter Kooy seems to reflect the most common performance practice in Bach's time.
The historical considerations apart, the performances with smaller forces give much better opportunities to express the text and make it clearly understandable. It is also vital to observe other aspects of the historical performance practice, like a good articulation and a differentiation between good and bad notes.
From these perspectives the recordings by Jochen Arnold, Masaaki Suzuki and Peter Kooy can be assessed most positively. It is fortunate that there are enough differences between them to recommend all three of them.

N.B. The recording by Gli Scarlattisti is probably hard to find, in particular outside Germany. Please look at the site of the ensemble or at chrismon.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

Bach Collegium Japan
Cappella Nova Graz
Domkantorei St. Pölten
Flemish Radio Choir
Gli Scarlattisti
Sette Voci

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