Bach Motets, BWV225-230

Author: 
Jonathan Freeman-Attwood

BACH Motets, BWV225-230

  • (6) Motets
  • (6) Motets

Bach’s blatant use of an antiquated musical genre says much about the way the motet symbolized for him the purest contrapuntal means of representing the text. Of the six motets in these two recordings (of which only the provenance of Lobet den Herrn, BWV230, is dubious), the majority were almost certainly composed by Bach for specific occasions and, more exactly, as obsequies; funereal contexts often allowed Bach the chance to bring before God and his commissioner a work where the relationship between music and word could be contrived with particular intensity and intimacy. But more than that, there is something deeply personal about the concentrated fervour of these motets, something reflected in the free-spirited and idiosyncratic rhetorical world of each piece. Whilst Bach’s generation jettisoned the motet in favour of an eighteenth-century cantata ethos – part of whose ‘modern’ structural diversity is of course adopted here – one should not forget that motets, old and not-so-old, were performed regularly at Leipzig.
Unashamedly novel, however, are the extensive technical demands made on the vocal forces. Whether or not one favours performing the works with colla parte instrumental parts (which Bach may well have chosen to do, according to performance conditions) as Harnoncourt and Kuijken do, or completely a cappella as Koopman does, there is really no hiding-place. Indeed, one is inclined to think that the incentive for Bach’s extreme vocal challenges is a form of atonement for the absence of instrumental obbligatos. Rene Jacobs’s new account is entirely of its age in that such tours de force are less technically intimidating than they have ever been: the RIAS Chamber Choir are wonderfully agile, beautifully blended, deftly embellished, clearly articulated and objectively controlled. Singet dem Herrn, BWV225, is a new song of radiant concerto-like proportions and the Berliners seamlessly phrase the chorale movements of Jesu, meine Freude, BWV227, and stroke with sonorous panache the elusively difficult Furchte dich nicht, BWV228. One is constantly marvelling at Bach’s abstract invention, and indeed Jacobs’s imaginative way with the textural palette at his disposal, where he calls on a full ensemble or seasoned soloists as he sees fit.
Less convincing, and more obvious on repeated listening, is a punctilious concern for detail over warmth of sentiment. Despite an impressive engagement with the words, Jacobs’s rounded vision is too coiffured. Kuijken is rather more searching of the human implications. So, too, is Harnoncourt in a welcome reissue of a recording made in 1980 with the Stockholm Bach Choir. Less wieldy or homogeneously executed than Jacobs, Harnoncourt’s version shapes the big contrapuntal movements, such as “Singet den Herrn” and “Komm, Jesu, komm” with greater rhythmic flexibility, even if the chorales are less grounded than they could be. The Stockholmers declaim the texts with vitality and unequivocal passion. Indeed, conveying Bach’s richly iridescent scores with sustained expressive focus is where Harnoncourt shows up Jacobs’s smaller-scale readings. Jacobs wafts beautifully – and how beautiful that can be – but Harnoncourt gets under the skin and lifts the heart. '

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