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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Motets

[A] La Petite Bande
Dir: Sigiswald Kuijken

rec: December 22 - 23, 2003, St Truiden (B), Academiezaal
Channel Classics - SACC72160 (© 2005) (56'46")

[B] The Hilliard Ensemble
rec: November 2003, Propstei St Gerold
ECM New Series - 1875 (© 2007) (76'50")

[C] Trinity Baroque
Dir: Julian Podger

rec: 10 - 15, 2006, Naumburg, Kirche St. Wenzel
Raumklang - RK 2601 (© 2007) (77'07")

[A,B,C] Johann Sebastian BACH: Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit (BWV 226); Fürchte dich nicht (BWV 228); Jesu, meine Freude (BWV 227); Komm, Jesu, komm (BWV 229); Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied (BWV 225); [B] Johann Sebastian BACH: Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden (BWV 230)a; Johann Sebastian BACH (?): Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn (BWV Anh III, 159); [C] anon: Denn du bist der Tröster; Ehre sei dem Vater; Gott Vater sei Lob; Herr Christ, der einig Gotts Sohn; Komm, Gott, Schöpfer, Heiliger Geist; Meine Seele erhebt den Herren; Zünd uns ein Licht an im Verstand; Johann Sebastian BACH: Herr Christ, der einig Gotts Sohn (BWV 601)b; Meine Seele erhebt den Herren (BWV 733)b; O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß (BWV 622)b

[A] Inge Van de Kerkhove, Marie Kuijken, soprano; Patrizia Hardt, Petra Noskaiová, contralto; Stefan-Alexander Rankl, Jens Weber, tenor; Jan Van der Crabben, Stephan Schreckenberger, bass; Patrick Beaugiraud, oboe; Natalia Alves Chahin, Ann Vanlancker, oboe da caccia; Rainer Johannsen, bassoon; Sigiswald Kuijken, Sara Kuijken, violin; Masanobu Tokura, violin, viola; Marleen Thiers, viola; Koji Takahashi, cello; Tom Devaere, violone; Frank Agsteribbe, organ
[B] Joanne Lunn, Rebecca Outram, soprano; David James, David Gould, alto; Rogers Covey-Crump, tenor, organa; Steven Harrold, tenor; Gordon Jones, Robert Macdonald, bass
[C] Elin Manahan, Christine Maria Rembeck, soprano; Clare Wilkinson, Kate Hamilton, contralto; Julian Podger, Hermann Oswald, tenor; Christopher Adams, Thomas Guthrie, bass; Arno Jochim, violone; James Johnstone, organb


In Bach's time motets were still a part of the liturgy in Lutheran churches. The repertoire consisted mainly of pieces written during the late 16th and the 17th centuries, mostly in the stile antico, although motets which were composed in the second half of the 17th century contained elements of the Italian concertato style as well. But it seems Bach and most of his contemporaries didn't feel the need to write motets to replace the traditional repertoire. Some members of his family, though, in particular Johann Christoph, Johann Ludwig and Johann Michael, did write motets which have been preserved thanks to Johann Sebastian who included them in the so-called Alt-Bachische Archiv. Another composer who wrote motets was Bach's friend and colleague Georg Philipp Telemann.

Bach did compose motets, but all of them were intended for special occasions, like funerals and memorial services. How many he has composed isn't quite clear. In 1802 Bach's first biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, refers to "many single- and double- choir motets". But only a handful have come down to us, and several of them are the subject of debate among scholars in regard to their authenticity. A motet like Ich lasse dich nicht (BWV Anh III, 159) is sometimes thought to be written by Johann Sebastian, whereas others attribute it to Johann Christoph, a cousin of Bach's father. In most recordings of Bach's motets it is left out. The same is true for O Jesu Christ, mein's Lebens Licht (BWV 118), which is sometimes considered a cantata, but is included in the volume with motets in the Neue Bach-Ausgabe. More or less for the same reason many recordings omit Sei Lob und Preis mit Ehren (BWV 231), which is almost identical with the second section of the cantata Gottlob! nun geht das Jahr zu Ende (BWV 28), except in text and instrumentation. In the recording by La Petite Bande another motet, which is included in almost any other recording, is also omitted: Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden (BWV 230). In the booklet Sigiswald Kuijken writes: "I have serious doubts about the authorship of this piece. Far from being a weak piece, this motet however does not show clearly the same hand as the five other motets which survived in non-suspicious sources; in my opinion it does not bring any additional value, - perhaps even on the contrary". Kuijken does refer here to the fact that this motet has survived in a manuscript which was once wrongly thought to be Bach's autograph.

Two aspects of Kuijken's recording are noteworthy. First, Sigiswald Kuijken believes Joshua Rifkin and Andrew Parrott are right as they think most sacred music by Bach - and many of his German contemporaries - was usually performed with one voice per part. Kuijken has started a series of recordings of cantatas by Bach performed this way, and in this recording the motets are also sung by an ensemble of soloists. Second, in all motets the voices are supported by instruments. In the motets for double choir one of the vocal groups is supported by strings, the second by woodwind. Only in the case of Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf instrumental parts in Bach's own hand have been handed down, but it is known that he himself performed motets by others with instrumental support. In general it works well in this recording, although the balance between voices and instruments is sometimes less than ideal, in particular in the first motet on this disc, Komm, Jesu, komm, where the oboe tends to overpower the soprano, and the text isn't always clearly audible.

One of the most positive aspects of this interpretation is the attention given to the text and the very precise and sharp articulation. On the whole I am very impressed by the way the text is communicated, with clear dynamic differences in line with the characteristics of the German language. The tempi are mostly rather fast, and the rhythms are delivered with great flair. Sometimes I had wished single words to be pointed out stronger, like "kracht und blitzt" and "Spott und Hohn" in Jesu, meine Freude. On the other hand, in Fürchte dich nicht the words "nicht" (weiche nicht) and "stärke" (ich stärke dich) are strongly emphasized, which brings the contrast in the text to the fore.

The disc ends with Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied. Of the motets on this disc it is the only one which can't be directly associated with a funeral or commemoration service. The American Bach scholar Robin A. Leaver has suggested it could be composed for Reformation day. The heart of this motet is the second section in which the first choir sings an anonymous aria, "Gott, nimm dich ferner unser an", whereas the second choir sings the chorale "Wie sich ein Vater erbarmet", which is the third stanza of Johann Gramann's hymn 'Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren' (a paraphrase of Psalm 103). At the end Bach asks for a repeat of this section: "The second verse is as the first, except that the choirs change around; the first choir sings the chorale, and the second the aria". In most recordings Bach's wishes are ignored, and that is also the case here. That is surprising as Kuijken seems so concerned about authenticity (cf. his decision to omit Lobet den Herrn). The only recording I know which follows Bach's instructions is John Eliot Gardiner's of 1980, although he repeats also the text, which is a little dubious (Robin Leaver suggests 'second verse' means: the stanza following the third, i.e. the fourth - this also supports his association of this motet with Reformation day).

The booklet contains very little information on the motets itself, but Sigiswald Kuijken gives his views on the choices in regard of interpretation he has made. The booklet makes a mess of the second section of Singet dem Herrn: the text of the second choir isn't complete, and the original and the translation don't match.

The recording by the Hilliard Ensemble has one thing in common with La Petite Bande's: both are sung by soloists. But otherwise there are many differences. Whereas Sigiswald Kuijken has decided not to record Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden, the Hilliard Ensemble not only has included this motet, but also Ich lasse dich nicht. And Sigiswald Kuijken decided to perform all motets with instruments playing colla parte, but the Hilliard Ensemble goes the other way: no instruments are used, except the organ in Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden. This motet has been preserved with a part for the basso continuo, the other motets are written for voices only. The ad libitum instrumental parts for Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf include a part for basso continuo, so if one decides not to use these instrumental parts it is only a matter of consistency not to use the basso continuo part either. Having said that the performance with voices only is debatable: a capella performances were certainly not common in Bach's time, and it was quite usual to add a basso continuo part in performances, which was probably the reason composers didn't bother to specify it. Examples of this are the motets of Gottfried August Homilius. I have to say that I find the outcome of the choice of an a capella performance not convincing.

But I realise that this could well be the effect of this interpretation by the Hilliard Ensemble. The ensemble hasn't devoted much of its time to Bach, or German music in general. And when they have done so the outcome was mostly less than convincing. That is also the case here, even more so than I feared. It starts immediately with the very first motet, Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied. In the first section the joy in the Lord is expressed with very lively rhythms, which gives it a dance-like character. Little of that comes out in the Hilliard Ensemble's performance: the dynamic accents are not very pronounced, and the tempo is too slow - it just never feels like a dance. The second section reveals another shortcoming: a lack of clear articulation as there is too much legato singing. German music, and Bach's music in particular, requires a much more speech-like approach which time and again non-German interpreters - especially British - find difficult to deliver.

In the first section of Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf the contrast between the two halves isn't fully explored. In the chorale which closes this motet there isn't enough differentiation and the closing chord is held too long (also a feature of this performance). In particular Jesu, meine Freude is disappointing in regard to text expression. Far too little is done with words and phrases like "nichts" (es ist nun nichts Verdammliches) (2), "laß den Satan wittern, laß den Feind erbittern", "kracht und blitzt", "Sünd und Hölle schrecken" (3), "Tobe, Welt, und springe", "Erd und Abgrund muß verstummen" (5). There isn't even a slight accent on "Weg" in "Weg mit allen Schätzen (...) Weg ihr eitlen Ehren" (7) - they just remain unnoticed as are "Elend, Not, Kreuz, Schmach und Tod" in the same section. And these are just a couple of examples.

In addition it has to be said that the blending of the voices is less than ideal. The sopranos tend to dominate, in particular when they sing forte. And here and there the vibrato of some singers harms the sound of the ensemble as a whole.

The third recording shares the 'one-voice-per-part' approach of the other two, but otherwise it is different in a some ways. Like in La Petite Bande's recording Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden (BWV 230) is omitted, not for stylistic reasons, but because the ensemble didn't opt for recording the complete motets. Instead the other four motets have been put into a kind of liturgical perspective, although this is no 'liturgical reconstruction'. In addition to the motets chorales on anonymous texts and texts by Martin Luther are performed as well as some organ works by Bach. I have to say that I can't always figure out why specific pieces have been chosen. As far as the scoring is concerned, all motets are performed with basso continuo, but otherwise no instruments are involved.

Although basically a British ensemble, it contains two German-speaking members and Julian Podger himself has been a pupil at a German school in his youth, and one may expect him knowing a fair deal of German and having some understanding of the German culture. This perhaps explains that this recording is stylistically much better than the Hilliard Ensemble's performance. To begin with, the tempi are much more satisfying as they give the music the chance to flow naturally. Only the first section of Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf is not quite convincing in this respect: it is sung at pretty high speed and because there are too few accents it sounds a bit hasty. In his programme notes Julian Podger shows his awareness of the influence of then common dance forms in these motets. This is reflected by the performance of the first section of Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied where one can feel the dance rhythm which is so woefully absent in the Hilliard Ensemble's recording. The middle section is also better articulated by Trinity Baroque than by the Hilliards. In Jesu, meine Freude the text expression is much better, exactly on those words and phrases I mentioned.

This doesn't mean this performance is without deficiencies. I regret that Elin Manahan Thomas is allowed to use vibrato now and then, which disturbs the blending of the voices. Sometimes the British tendency to sing too much legato is creeping in, or instance in the closing chorale of Komm, Jesu, komm. But that doesn't really spoil my appreciation of this recording which surpasses by moderate expectations as I was less than enthusiastic about the ensemble's performance during the Holland Festival Early Music 2006. I also appreciate the contributions of James Johnstone on the wonderful historical Hildebrandt-organ where he plays some of Bach's finest works.

Although I have made some critical remarks about Sigiswald Kuijken's recording his interpretation stands head and shoulders above that of the Hilliard Ensemble. Music as Klangrede - that is one of the guiding principles of Sigiswald Kuijken's interpretation of German music, and that makes his recordings of this repertoire thoroughly convincing, in particular in regard to the relationship of text and music. Kuijken being my first choice I also recommend Trinity Baroque as its concept is quite original and the performances of the motets are generally pretty good. The recording by the Hilliard Ensemble is below what one may expect in a performance of Bach's motets and therefore I advise to avoid it.

Johan van Veen (© 2008)

Relevant links:

La Petite Bande
The Hilliard Ensemble
Trinity Baroque


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