J. S. Bach, Motets, Monteverdi Choir, J. E. Gardiner
(released on June 26, 2012)
Soli Deo Gloria SDG716 | 72'24"
J. S. Bach, Motets, Bach Collegium Japan, M. Suzuki
(released on February 23, 2010)
BIS-SACD-1841 | 73'31"
J. S. Bach, Motets, Bach Sinfonia, D. Abraham
(released on October 26, 2010)
DSL-92119 | 76'20"
D. R. Melamed, J. S. Bach and the German Motet (1995)
Of the motets only BWV 230 has an accompaniment written out, and that is only a continuo line, but there was a tradition of accompanying this kind of piece with continuo, which is what Gardiner chose to do in his new recording, or also to double the vocal parts with instruments. This is what Masaaki Suzuki and Bach Collegium Japan chose to do with their much more full-voiced version, combining a larger choir, more vocally powerful soloists, and a lavish instrumental consort. Suzuki is able to give a much broader sweep to the grander sections, but in Gardiner's new version one feels much closer to the singers, especially in those passages reduced to just a few voices. Suzuki takes some daring tempi, too, fast enough to be able to squeeze BWV 118b (O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht, now generally considered a cantata although Bach called it a motet) onto the program, with only a minute more than Gardiner's timing. The fastest performance of the motets yet to reach my ears is an absolutely frenetic reading by Voces8, with the Senesino Players (Signum, also released in 2010), thrilling at times but also going off the rails a bit.
Around the same time as the Bach Collegium Japan recording, the Washington-based Bach Sinfonia performed all of Bach's motets, with a recording made shortly thereafter, at the Spencerville Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Silver Spring. This is also a large-scale rendition, with sixteen singers, five of whom are soloists, plus strings, woodwinds, and continuo organ, akin to the sound of Suzuki's interpretation but not as finished in terms of intonation and vowel unity (the singers, after a marathon week at that point, frankly sound a little tired). Locally, these pieces have generally been the domain of the Washington Bach Consort, but the last time I heard that group perform one of them, it was a disappointment. Director Daniel Abraham also includes BWV Anh.159, along with the six motets thought to be part of Bach's set, and has time to add an extra seven minutes worth of alternate chorale settings for BWV 225 and 226. One of the best features is a thorough booklet essay on the motets by none other than Daniel Melamed, who teaches at Indiana University.