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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Singet dem Herr nein neues Lied [12:04]
Komm, Jesu, Komm [8:01]
Jesu meine Freude [18:20]
Der Geist hilft unsrer Schwacheit auf [7:30]
Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir [8:09]
Lobet den Herren, alle Heiden [6:14]
Cantus Cölln/Konrad Junghänel (artistic director and lute)
Recorded 19th-23rd October 1995, St.Osdag Mandelsloh


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Bach’s motets differ from his cantatas in that, apart from being, on the whole, much shorter, they contain no vocal solo numbers nor instrumental obbligati. Indeed, there is no specified instrumentation, and they used to be performed a cappella (i.e. without accompaniment). However, most conductors today follow the practice we find on this disc of supporting the voices with continuo and discreet instrumental doubling.

Cantus Cölln consists, as here represented, of eight singers plus an instrumental group consisting of oboes, taille (tenor oboe), bassoon and strings, with organ and lute continuo, the latter supplied by the artistic director Konrad Junghänel. For me, this creates an ideal sound-world: intimate and flexible, yet not without the possibility of richness when needed.

The singing would have to be described as ‘virtuoso’; having sung these works myself (in a chamber choir not one-on-a-part, I hasten to add!), I know how very difficult and treacherous they are. They require flawless intonation throughout passages of sometimes extreme chromaticism, and the ready availability of many different styles of articulation. All of this, Cantus Cölln possess and deliver in great style. The voices are in many cases very fine, notably Johanna Koslowsky, whose soaring lines in Komm, Jesu, Komm are supremely lovely, and Gerd Türk, whose tenor is clear and focused without being reedy. These are young voices, athletic and flexible.

Nevertheless, I found these performances variable in their impact. Singet dem Herr ein neues Lied ("Sing to the Lord a new song"), such a joyous piece, feels somehow matter-of-fact, almost bland. Everything is in place, but the music seems like clock-work rather than a living, growing organism. The darker pieces fare better; Fürchte dich nicht (given here as "Fear thou not") has one of Bach’s finest chromatic fugues, and the singers sculpt the complex lines with great control and cumulative intensity.

Those same qualities inform the greatest of the motets, Jesu meine Freude ("Jesus my joy"). In its way, this is one of Bach’s supreme achievements, in that it amalgamates so many different structural ideas – principally fugue and variations – into one unique whole. Into its eighteen minute duration, is packed a great range of emotions, with dramatic word-painting and breathtaking contrapuntal mastery. Konrad Junghänel controls the tempi with subtlety and sensitivity, revealing the many expressive shades while preserving the overall unity.

A fine issue, then, though Harmonia Mundi might need to recommend new glasses for some of their staff – the slip-case gives the title of the first motet as Singet dern (sic) Herr ein nettes Lied, which translates as Sing to the Lord a nice song! No doubt a worthy sentiment, but hardly what Bach or the Old Testament author had in mind. There are other careless errors too – irritating and unnecessary.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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