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Briefly Noted: More Bach Motets

available at Amazon
J. S. Bach, Motets, Monteverdi Choir, J. E. Gardiner

(released on June 26, 2012)
Soli Deo Gloria SDG716 | 72'24"

available at Amazon
J. S. Bach, Motets, Bach Collegium Japan, M. Suzuki

(released on February 23, 2010)
BIS-SACD-1841 | 73'31"

available at Amazon
J. S. Bach, Motets, Bach Sinfonia, D. Abraham

(released on October 26, 2010)
DSL-92119 | 76'20"

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D. R. Melamed, J. S. Bach and the German Motet
Some of Bach's greatest achievements in choral music are found in his set of motets, a somewhat archaic genre used for (mostly unspecified) special occasions. As Daniel Melamed has shown in his comprehensive study of Bach's motets, these pieces are part of a long tradition of German motets, rather than sticking out historically like a sore thumb. There are six of them, BWV 225 to 230, plus one now considered spurious (BWV 231) and another formerly misattributed to Johann Christoph Bach (BWV Anh.159), which is now generally included in the set. John Eliot Gardiner's first recording of these pieces (Erato, 1982) was one of my favorites, among several others, so widely has this music been set to disc: two by the Hilliard Ensemble (1985, with the Hanover Boys Choir -- important listening, to remember the vocal forces Bach had at hand -- and 2007, augmented by other adults), Harry Christophers and the Sixteen (1993), and Nikolaus Harnoncourt in the Das Alte Werk Complete Bach edition (Teldec, now sounding somewhat dated). Most of these pieces, with the exception of Singet dem Herrn and especially the meaty Jesu, meine Freude, are not major works in terms of length, but each one has gorgeous moments and something substantial to say -- as a set, like everything this encyclopedic composer grouped together, they encompass a range of techniques. Gardiner's new version, recorded live in London's church of St John's Smith Square last year, is different from his older one principally in the fleetness of his fast tempos (and BWV 231 being replaced by BWV Anh.159), shaving a couple of minutes off each of the longer motets. The full sound of the whole choir, especially at the end of the larger works, is thrilling. It supplants his older recording and now leads the pack for its streamlined sound.

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.


Unknown said...

Personal taste here, but I think the Suzuki reaches stratospheric (even heavenly) heights, in great part thanks to the remarkable fluidity of line and the blend of voices. Gardiner as always is a little dry to me, and not as plain gorgeous. But that's taste for you. And what about Herreweghe's new set on Phi, and Sette Voci's one-to-a-part?

jfl said...

So many wonderful choices: Herreweghe's old set on HM, for that matter, or still my favorite: Kuijken's first on Accentus. Haven't yet heard Herreweghe II and Kuijken II, but am looking forward to doing so. To my ears, Gardiner's un-pressing, slightly soft ways ended up being outshone by the persuasive, determined Suzuki. For sheer vocal bliss, Dijkstra / Netherlands Chamber Chorus (Challenge), is very much worth a listen.

Charles T. Downey said...

@Unknown: Both Gardiner II and Suzuki are fine recordings, with mainly taste in the scope of performance forces being the deciding factor for most listeners, I would think. I have yet to hear either of Herreweghe's recordings or the Sette Voci you mention.

@Jens: Gardiner II, un-pressing? You mean in overall dynamic force rather than tempo?

Charles T. Downey said...

@Unknown: I should reiterate that the thing I miss in the Suzuki recording is some of the intimacy Gardiner has with smaller forces, in the "Gute nacht, O Wesen" movement, for example. It is true that Gardiner does not reach the same broadness of volume, but I did not miss that as much.

Unknown said...

Then I must revisit the Gardiner; I must admit I didn't get very far along with the recording, as the general sound world immediately made me back away hurriedly.

If it's intimacy that appeals to you, then it might be well worth seeing what Sette Voci offer. Happy listening, all.