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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685–1739)
Singet dem Herrn BWV225 (1727) [14.41] (1)
Der geist Hilft BWV226 (1729) [8.01] (2)
Jesu, meine Freude BWV227 (1723) [23.24] (3)
Fürchte dich nicht BWV228 (1726) [8.09] (4)
Komm, Jesu, Komm BWV229 [9.35] (5)
Lobet den Herrn BWV230 (1723) [6.41] (6)
University of Wisconsin-Madison Concert Choir/Robert Fountain
rec. 30 March 1984 (1); 31 March 1990 (2); 22 March 1980 (3); 1 April 1989 (4); 15 March 1988 (5); 22 April 1979 (6), Mills Hall (1-4, 6); Central College, Pella, Iowa (5)
UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN-MADISON, SCHOOL OF MUSIC (no CD number) [70.55]



American choral conductor Robert Fountain (1917–1996) taught from 1948 until 1970 at Oberlin College. Then from 1971 until his retirement in 1994 he was on the teaching staff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Much of his work there was with the Choral Union and the Concert Choir. The Concert Choir consisted of some 65 singers and was considered one of the finest musical groups in the state.
 
Since 2000, the Mills Music Library at UW-Madison has embarked on the ‘Robert Fountain Legacy Project’, in which it is attempting to make available the vast quantity of material left behind by Fountain. This disc, of the Bach motets, is part of that project. The six motets were recorded live at various times between 1979 and 1990.
 
What is remarkable is the consistency of choral tone and musical approach in these recordings. Obviously Fountain must have had a clear idea about what he was trying to achieve, and went a long way towards achieving it. Whether this makes for a satisfying disc, of course, is another matter. I will say at the outset that I tried very hard to like these performances but found myself completely out of sympathy with them.
 
Bach’s motets were all written for special occasions, the majority of them for funerals. This means that we can assume that he might have performed them with something resembling a choir rather than the sort of one-to-a-part vocal ensemble that may have been used for the cantatas - and possibly the passions.
 
I have heard some satisfying performances of these works given by chamber choirs, but the choral sound made by the UW-Madison Concert Choir seems to be too beefy, the choir just feels too large for the works. There is a good case, in an educational establishment especially, for performing works anachronistically in order to give students the chance of performing such great music at a high level. Fair enough, but I’m not sure I want to hear it.
 
The choral sound is rich, pretty well blended and heavily vibrato laden. It would probably sound very good in Bruckner. But in Bach the choral sound is congested, because of the vibrato rich quality of the voices. Individual lines tend to be obscured leaving Bach’s polyphony sounding like a clogged mess. Its not that the singers don’t have a good sense of line, they do, but the choral sound that they are aiming for seems to be unsuitable for this music. This is a shame, because there is much to admire in the musicality and phrasing of the choir. Fountain's tempi are completely apposite for the size of his group, the pieces are well articulated and lively.
 
Being live performances, there is the odd slip in performance. The different motets do vary as well. Though all suffer occasionally from poor articulation in the runs; Fürchte dich nicht does so particularly. The soprano tone is rather pinched in this motet as well.
 
The CD booklet includes texts in German and English as well as notes about the works taken from the Concert Choir’s own programmes. The last motet, Lobet den Herrn, is performed with organ and cello continuo.
 
I can recommend this disc only to people who might be interested in the work of Robert Fountain and the art of choral training in the USA. If you are looking for a good all-round disc of the Bach motets, look elsewhere.
 
Robert Hugill
 



 


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