musica Dei donum

Concert reviews

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Motets
Netherlands Bach Society/Stephan MacLeod
concert: May 12, 2016, Utrecht, Jacobikerk

Johann Christoph BACH (1642-1703): Fürchte dich nicht; Johann Sebastian BACH: Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf (BWV 226); Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir (BWV 228); Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis (BWV 21) (sinfonia); Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn (BWV Anh 156); Komm, Jesu, komm (BWV 229); Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied (BWV 225); Gottfried August HOMILIUS (1714-1785): Herr, lehre uns bedenken (HoWV V.44); Johann Hermann SCHEIN (1586-1630): Lehre uns bedenken; Johann Heinrich SCHMELZER (c1623-1680): Lamento sopra la morte Ferdinand III; Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585-1672): Die mit Tränen säen (SWV 378)

The motets belong to the most frequently performed compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach. They regularly appear on concert programmes and are available in many CD recordings. Obviously not two performances are exactly the same. But one can also tell them apart in the way they approach the three main issues regarding the interpretation of these motets. These issues are also relevant when reviewing the performance by the Netherlands Bach Society under the direction of Stephan MacLeod. Unfortunately none of these issues was discussed in the booklet accompanying the concert.

The first issue any interpreter has to deal with is which motets should be included. There are some doubts about the authenticity of Lobe den Herrn, alle Heiden (BWV 230). This must have been the reason that it was omitted. On the other hand, MacLeod included Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn. Once it was attributed to Johann Sebastian Bach but later it was assumed to be from the pen of his great-uncle Johann Christoph. This explains that it was included in the appendix of the Schmieder catalogue. Today Bach scholars tend to consider it an authentic composition by Johann Sebastian. Some recordings include O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht (BWV 118) which is ranked among the cantatas but whose texture is not fundamentally different from that of the motets. Bach also called it a Motetto but as the description of sacred works in Bach's oeuvre is not very precise this is not of overriding importance. It was not performed during this concert nor was Jesu, meine Freude (BWV 227). According to MacLeod in the booklet it is so different in length and texture that it didn't fit into the programme. He added that he didn't believe it was meant to be performed by a choir and that it is clearly written for solo voices.

This leads to the second issue: the size of the vocal ensemble. As most readers of this review will know the line-up of vocal forces in the performance of Bach's sacred vocal works is a subject of an often heated debate among scholars and performers. The fact that MacLeod decided to perform the motets with a choir of 26 singers (8/6/6/6) is a little surprising: with his own ensemble Gli Angeli Genève he regularly performs cantatas with one voice per part. Several discs document this approach. I would have liked to know what his reasons were to opt for a choral performance here. As long as the outcome of the debate on this issue is undecided it is impossible to say who is right. However, from a historical point of view the choir in these performances was too large. If we take Bach's documented wish to have at least 16 singers at his disposal - which he probably mostly did not have - this should be considered the maximum.

The third issue concerns the participation of instruments. Only one motet, Der Geist hilf unser Schwachheit auf, has come down to us with instrumental parts. The question is whether these were meant for a specific performance or just a way to demonstrate how instruments could be involved in a performance. In the latter case one could argue that this practice should - or at least could - be applied to the other motets as well. MacLeod seemed a little inconsistent here. In all the motets the instruments of the Netherlands Bach Society - strings and wind - played colla voce, except in Komm, Jesu, komm. Again I would have liked to know MacLeod's arguments.

It was not the only inconsistency. Another was the line-up in Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied. In the second section the first choir sings the 'aria' "Gott, nimm dich ferner unser an", the second choir the chorale "Wie sich ein Vater erbarmet", the third stanza from the hymn "Nun lob, mein' Seel', den Herren". Bach indicates that this section should be repeated: "The second verse is as the first, except that the choirs change around; the first choir sings the chorale, and the second the aria". This is ignored in most recordings, probably because it is not very clear what Bach means with "second verse". Is this the second verse of the hymn, or, as the American musicologist Robin A. Leaver suggests, the one following the third, meaning the fourth? It is praiseworthy that MacLeod decided to oblige to Bach's instructions, following Leaver's suggestion. One would expect the line-up in the two statements of this section to be the same. That was not the case. In the first statement the 'aria' was sung by solo voices from the first choir with the chorale being sung by the full second choir. In the repeat the roles were swapped but here the 'aria' was performed by the full first choir. I couldn't figure out what the reasons for this difference may have been.

As not all the motets were performed some additional music needed to be selected. Moreover, MacLeod also thought it useful to put Bach's motets in their historical perspective. With the sacred madrigal Lehre uns bedenken by Johann Hermann Schein (from the Israelis Brünlein, 1623) and the motet Die mit Tränen säen by Heinrich Schütz (from Geistliche Chor-Music, 1648) he showed the tradition - characteristic for Protestant Germany - in which Bach's motets are rooted: a mixture of counterpoint - a feature of the stile antico - and Italian stile nuovo elements. To the same tradition belongs Johann Christoph Bach's setting of Fürchte dich nicht which resulted in an interesting contrast to Johann Sebastian's setting of the same text. The opening verse from Schein's madrigal returned in the motet Herr, lehre uns bedenken by Gottfried August Homilius, a Bach pupil of the same generation as his sons and one of the main German composers of sacred music from the second half of the 18th century. He was one of the most prolific composers of motets, not - as those by Bach - for special occasions, such as funerals, but for regular services on Sundays and feast days.

Let us turn to the performances. The choir of the Netherlands Bach Society is an excellent ensemble whose members are all well suited to take solo parts. Those qualities certainly came to the fore. Usually the delivery is pretty good but that was the main weakness in this particular concert. This was due to a mixture of factors: the size of the choir, the mostly swift tempi MacLeod had chosen and the acoustic of the Jacobikerk. I have already argued that 26 voices is too much for Bach's motets. This resulted in the texts being very hard to understand, especially in those passages which were sung at a high speed. In some cases these tempi may have been justified from an interpretational angle but probably only work with a smaller ensemble. Too many details were lost here. The church's acoustic also was a major factor. A conductor needs to adapt his tempi to the venue and its acoustical characteristics. That was not the case here. At least where I was seated large parts of the text were inaudible. Fortunately I - and probably most people in the audience - know those texts and they were also included in the booklet. But that is no excuse for a performance which results in the texts being inaudible to a considerable part of the audience. Acoustical considerations apart, some tempi were too fast, especially Fürchte dich nicht (BWV 228) and Komm, Jesu, komm. The nice swaying rhythm of the last section of the latter's first part - "du bist der rechte Weg, die Wahrheit und das Leben" - was largely lost.

In comparison the pieces by Schein, Schütz and Johann Christoph Bach came off rather well. These were sung with one voice per part and showed that the same line-up would have been preferable in Bach's motets as well. The text was pretty well understandable and the details of the way the composers had set the texts were much better conveyed. The instrumentalists did a good job in the two instrumental items - with some nice ornamentation in Schmelzer from its leader Shunske Sato - and added beautiful colours to the motets in which they participated.

I certainly enjoyed some parts of this concert, in particular the pieces sung by solo voices. There can be little doubt about the artistic qualities of all people involved but some unlucky decisions and the fact that the effects of the acoustical circumstances were not taken into consideration resulted in a concert which left me unsatisfied and disappointed about the concert as a whole.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Concert reviews