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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Motets"

Dir: Raphaël Pichon

rec: Sept 2019, Paris, Église Notre-Dame-du-Liban
Harmonia mundi - HMM 902657 (© 2020) (78'08")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/(D)/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Johann Sebastian BACH: Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf (BWV 226); Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir (BWV 228); Jesu, meine Freude (BWV 227); Komm, Jesu, komm (BWV 229); Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden (BWV 230); Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied (BWV 225); Vincenzo BERTOLUSI (c1550-1608): Osculetur me a 7; Giovanni GABRIELI (c1554/57-1612): Jubilate Deo a 8 (C 16); Jacobus HANDL-GALLUS (1550-1591): Ecce quomodo moritur justus a 4

Ulrike Barth, Adèle Carlier, Cécile Dalmon, Anne-Emmanuelle Davy, Perrine Devillers, Maïlys de Villoutreys, Alice Foccroulle, Armelle Cardot-Froeliger, Marie-Frédérique Girod, Marie Planinsek, soprano; Corinne Bahuaud, Marie Pouchelon, Lucile Richardot, mezzo-soprano; Philippe Barth, William Shelton, Alexander Schneider, alto; Didier Chassaing, Olivier Coiffet, Davy Cornillot, Constantin Goubet, Guillaume Gutierrez, Randol Rodriguez, tenor; Virgile Ancely, Nicolas Boulanger, Renaud Bres, Nicolas Brooymans, Guillaume Olry, René Ramos Premier, bass
Antoine Touche, cello; Thomas de Pierrefeu, double bass; Thomas Dunford, archlute; Thibaut Roussel, theorbo; Pierre Gallon, harpsichord, organ; Matthieu Boutineau, organ

The motet has been one of the main genres in sacred music in the course of music history. The first were written in the Middle Ages, and this form is still used by composers, although since the late 18th century it was often not connected to the liturgy. The motets by Johannes Brahms, for instance, were written for performances outside the church. During the Renaissance large numbers of motets were written for the Roman Catholic liturgy. Although the German Reformation had quite some effects in liturgical matters, motets were still a fixed part of Lutheran worship. In the early 17th century several collections of motets, mostly in Latin and from the pen of Catholic composers, were published and remained in use until far into the 18th century. The fact that they were mostly written by Catholic composers was not considered a problem, as long as their texts were not in contradiction to Lutheran doctrine.

The fact that these motets were still sung in Bach's time indicates that there were hardly any composers who were willing to write motets to replace them. This has everything to do with the influence of the Italian style. This resulted in the composition of sacred concertos, in which the monodic principle manifested itself and which were less suited for performances by school choirs, which played a central role in the liturgy. Later it was the cantata, modelled after the Italian secular cantata with its recitatives and arias, and also influenced by opera, which prevented the emergence of a new motet repertoire.

However, motets were written in the second half of the 17th century and the early 18th century, for instance by members of the Bach dynasty. Several of them have left a substantial corpus of motets, in particular Johann Christoph, Johann Ludwig and Johann Michael. These were not intended for regular services but rather for special occasions, in particular funerals. That also goes for the motets by Johann Sebastian and his colleague Telemann. It was only in the second half of the 18th century that composers started to write motets for liturgical use, as replacement of the motets which were increasingly considered to be too old-fashioned.

Bach's motets are among the most frequently performed and recorded vocal works of the baroque period. Most of them are for two choirs, just as many motets by other members of the Bach dynasty. German composers of the 17th century enthusiastically embraced the cori spezzati technique which had emerged in Venice in the first half of the 16th century and had been brought to prosperity by Giovanni Gabrieli, the teacher of Heinrich Schütz, who was one of those who frequently made use of this technique, for instance in his Psalmen Davids. The motet collections of the early 17th century, among them the Florilegium Portense (1618), also included a number of motets for two choirs. This inspired Raphaël Pichon to put Bach's motets in a historical context, by adding three motets from the collection, two of them for double choir (Handl-Gallus's motet is for four voices, not seven as the track-list has it).

With the addition of motets in the stile antico Raphaël Pichon makes sure that his recording of Bach's motets is different from the many performances that are available on disc. There are other differences between the recordings in the catalogue. There are several issues regarding Bach's motets which performers have to tackle.

The first is the question which motets are authentic. The authenticity of Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden is sometimes doubted. Some performers (among them Sigiswald Kuijken) decide to omit it, but Pichon did include it, unlike Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn. This motet was once attributed to Johann Sebastian, then to Johann Christoph Bach. Recently Bach scholars tend to consider it an authentic composition by Johann Sebastian after all. Masaaki Suzuki 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. However, Bach himself entitled it Motetto, which is a good reason to include it (which Pichon did not), even though it is quite different in that it has independent instrumental parts.

The latter aspect brings us to the second issue: the role of instruments. Only for one motet, Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf, instrumental parts are extant: strings for choir I and winds for choir II. From this some 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. Pichon entirely omitted the use of instruments, except in the basso continuo. Notable here is the use of two plucked instruments. It is common practice these days to include a lute, a theorbo, an archlute or even a guitar in the basso continuo section, but often the historical foundation of this practice is rather insecure. It seems to me that in the case of the motets there is little reason to include any of them. An organ may suffice, probably with the addition of a single string bass.

The third issue is the way Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied is performed. 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. Whatever Bach may have meant, it is clear that the second section should be repeated. Only a few performers decided to follow Bach's instruction, and unfortunately Pichon is not one of them (the issue is not even mentioned in the liner-notes). Obviously, if he had followed it, there would have been a lack of space for one of the additional motets from Florilegium Portense.

Lastly, one aspect which makes a difference between the various recordings on the market is the size of the vocal forces. In the old days performances with large choirs were the rule. Since the early days of historical performance practice, most recordings are by vocal ensembles of mostly 16 to 20 singers, and in recent years several recordings have been released in which each part is sung by just one voice. With its 28 voices (10/6/6/6) Pygmalion is quite large, and from a historical point of view that is hardly tenable. It is notable that even some conductors who perform the motets with a chamber choir, opt for a one-to-a-part performance of Jesu, meine Freude. Pichon uses his full forces here as well.

Pygmalion is an excellent ensemble, as it has shown on previous occasions. In this production, it includes several singers whom we also know as soloists, such as Maïlys de Villoutreys, Perrine Devillers, Lucile Richardot and Nicolas Brooymans. Some of them are also members of other ensembles, for instance the Ensemble Correspondances. All of them have plenty experience in early music, and Pichon has quite some recordings and live performances of Bach's music to his credit. Overall, these performances are idiomatic enough, especially considering that most of the performers are French. That does not mean that this recording is entirely convincing. The tempi are overall not that different from most other performances, but the contrasts within the motets between the various sections may well be stronger. Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden is a good example: the opening section is very fast, as is the closing Alleluja. The second section is rather slow. The contrasts seem to me exaggerated. In some fast sections the aim of keeping the words intelligible results in an articulation at the verge of staccato, for instance on the phrase "Wir wissen nicht, was wir beten sollen" (Der Geist hilft under Schwachheit auf). There are also quite some strong dynamic contrasts, and again, these tend to be a bit exaggerated. Why in Jesu, meine Freude the last line of the second section - "Jesus will mich decken" (Jesus will protect me) - is sung piano is a mystery to me. The diminuendi and crescendi in Fürchte dich nicht are rather unstylish. Generally, I find the treatment of dynamics almost a little romantic. The tendency to keep the closing note or chord rather long is an odd idiosyncracy.

The concept of this production is quite interesting, and the three renaissance motets are very well sung. Handl-Gallus's superb motet Ecce quomodo moritur justus is quite moving, despite - or probably rather because of - its relative simplicity. It is quite popular these days, and I have heard it many times in recent years, but this performance is hard to surpass. That can't be said of the performances of Bach's motets, despite their unmistakable qualities.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

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