JS Bach: Motets BWV 225-230

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COMPOSERS: JS Bach
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Motets BWV 225-230
PERFORMER: Vocalconsort Berlin/Marcus Creed; Richard Myron (violin), Jan Freiheit (cello), Tobias Schade (organ)
CATALOGUE NO: HMC 902079

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Four of these motets are for two equal choirs, four voices each, rather than a single eight-part ensemble. Bach capitalises on this, often repeating or developing phrases between the choirs. This compositional device must, surely, imply contrast between the two bodies – most probably in space, though possibly also in the number and weight of their voices or in loud-quiet contrasts. Yet neither of these performances differentiates between the choirs. Statements are simply repeated from a central body of singers; any dramatic dialogue is lost. 
 
Both omit an ingenious instruction from Bach in the second movement of Singet dem Herrn: he asks for the music (in which one choir’s simple choral phrase is answered by the other’s more complex comment) to be repeated but with choirs’ roles reversed. Nothing, again, could more clearly imply spatial separation – the exercise is pointless if they’re gathered into a single group. Perhaps both conductors were persuaded by sections in which the choirs join in unison: but then the stereo effect Bach intended of four parts distributed across a whole choir rather than pinned to specific locations in the aural spectrum is both novel and effective.
 
After decades of unaccompanied performance, scholarship has revealed that the Motets were certainly supported by continuo and possibly by instruments doubling voices – wind and string parts exist for Der Geist hilft. Nicol Matt adds instruments freely and effectively to voices, though neither their nature nor their players are listed in skimpy notes (no translations of texts either). His singers are lively, though prone to weighty first-beats: Komm Jesu, komm is more demand than plea. He is sparing with dynamics, the opening section of BWV225 a wearying forte throughout. Intonation is impeccable, wrapping sustained chords in velvety richness. 
 
Marcus Creed’s singers are markedly lighter, less articulated but flowing with a delightful ease through Bach’s taxing figurations – treating voices as if texted instruments. He binds together the contrasting sections of Lobet den Herrn with a constant pulse, trusting Bach’s changing note-values to create expressive variety. Both performances are excellently recorded, but neither is a match for Suzuki’s implicit trust in Bach’s implied intentions. George Pratt