Suzuki and his Bach Collegium Japan commenced their complete
Johann Sebastian Bach sacred cantata cycle for BIS in 1995. Suzuki
is now on the home-stretch
For those unfamiliar with the Bach Collegium Japan, they are a choir and orchestra
founded in 1990 by their director and keyboard player Masaaki Suzuki. Here Suzuki
has a choir of eighteen SATB singers including six soloists. The orchestra are
renowned as Japan’s leading period instrument ensemble applying their knowledge
of historically informed performances of sacred baroque music and specialising
in the work of J.S. Bach. Their chosen venue has been the Shoin Women’s
University Chapel in Kobe, Japan. Full details of the instrumentation and singers
for each score is provided in the excellent booklet notes.
Bach wrote approaching two hundred cantatas for liturgical use. They were almost
always intended for a specific feast or function in the Lutheran church calendar.
Compared to the large number of sacred cantatas Bach’s six Motets
a far smaller grouping but they are no less important. Much academic research
has gone into discovering their intended purpose. It is generally acknowledged
that they were written mainly for funeral services. It seems that only the motet Der
Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf
, BWV 226 is definitely known to have been
used for a funeral; specifically at the burial of Johann Heinrich Ernesti. The
score Lobet den Herrn alle Heiden
, BWV 230 is traditionally included in
the group of six although its Bach attribution is a cause of doubt.
In addition to the six Motets
, BWV 225-230 we hear on the BIS disc the
sacred choral works: BWV Anh.159 and BWV 118.
On the other disc, ORF include only five of the group of six Bach Motets
the questionable Lobet den Herrn alle Heiden
, BWV 230. ORF’s Otto
Kargl uses two choirs and he tells us that there are eighteen singers in each.
In the double choir Motets
the Domkantorei St. Pölten is placed on
the right side and the Cappella Nova Graz on the left. The Solamente Naturali
(Simply Natural) Bratislava play on period instruments. Specialising in baroque
music the Slovakian ensemble was founded in 1995. Details of the specific instrumentations
are not given in the booklet notes but I have established that Kargl’s
basso continuo is a chamber organ and double-bass.
The origin of much of Bach’s prodigious compositional output is frequently
difficult to unravel and his Motets
are no exception. They are occasional
works that he would compose to commissions for specific events. Following a death
a mourner might select their own specific Bible passage as the basis of a Motet
be sung at the funeral service. Owing to the time constraints of the forthcoming
burial it is likely that Bach would have had to work extremely quickly with little
time for rehearsal.
As most of the original manuscripts of the Motets
are missing it is not
always possible to determine the works’ origins and purposes. For many
were thought to have been written for unaccompanied chorus.
It is now widely accepted that in Bach’s time Motets
using a basso continuo
section with an instrument to provide the harmony.
The BIS booklet explains how it was common to support the vocals by utilising colla
which is “using instruments playing in unison with the vocal
For double mixed choir the three movement motet Singet dem Herrn ein neues
(Sing unto the Lord a new song
), BWV 225 was composed around
1726/27. Most likely intended for a funeral service it is possible that it may
have been for a feast day such as Christmas or Easter. Here in the manner of
BWV 226 Suzuki has placed strings with the first choir and woodwind with the
second. Organ and bass serve as the basso continuo
. Suzuki states that
this is his favourite Bach Motet
and it is wonderfully performed with
obvious devotional respect throughout. I especially enjoyed Suzuki’s immaculate
performance of the opening Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied
. Also gloriously
rendered is the substantial final movement psalm setting Lobet den Herrn in
(Praise the Lord for his mighty deeds
) - a four-part
fugue. In Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied
Kargl and his two choirs impress
in the central movement chorale Wie sich ein Vater erbarmet
(As a father
) coming across as warmly enthusiastic and dedicated.
The motet Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf
(Likewise the spirit
also helpeth our infirmities
), BWV 226 is the only Motet
a reasonable amount of information is known. It was written in 1729 for the funeral
of Johann Heinrich Ernesti who was rector of the St. Thomas School, Leipzig.
This is a three movement score for double mixed choir and Suzuki has placed strings
with the first choir and woodwind with the second. Organ and bass are the basso
. In the movement Der aber die Herzen forschet
searcheth the hearts
) - a complex four-voiced double fugue - I particularly
enjoyed Kargl’s chorus who sing with ease and enthusiastic dedication.
Little is known about the Motet
, Komm, Jesu, komm!
), BWV 229. For double mixed chorus the score was probably written before
1733. A true highlight of all the Motets
is the quite superb performance
of the title track Komm, Jesu, komm!
BWV 229. Suzuki’s choir sings
with great craft and precision but never lack humanity. In the same movement
Kargl’s choral forces are also on fine form singing splendidly with a rapt
Thought to have been written prior to 1735 Jesu, meine Freude
), BWV 227 is a substantial five-part motet cast in eleven movements.
Considered by many judges to be one of Bach’s greatest Motets
musicologist Donald Francis Tovey has singled out the chorus Gute Nacht
(Good night, O life
) for special praise. It was for many years
thought to have been intended for the funeral service of Johann Maria Keeys but
this is now the subject of continuing dispute. At the heart of the score is the
five-part fugue Ihr aber seid nicht fleischlich
(But ye are not in
). I was struck by how the considerable technical and interpretative
challenges are overcome by the Bach Collegium Japan and always with accomplishment
and radiant expression.
In a single movement Lobet den Herrn alle Heiden
(O praise the Lord,
all ye nations
), BWV 230 is a four part Motet
that has had its attribution
to Bach questioned. It was written after 1730 possibly for a funeral service.
Another single movement motet for double mixed choir is Ich lasse dich nicht,
du Segnest mich denn
, (I will not let thee go
), BWV Anh. 159. Probably
intended for a funeral service the score was partially written by Bach and also
by one of his pupils.
The one movement motet Fürchte dich nicht, Ich bin bie dir
ye not, for I am with thee
), BWV 228 is scored for double mixed choir. There
have been long associations with the funeral service of Frau Susanna Sophia Winckler
in 1726 but this is now doubtful. It may have been composed earlier around 1708-17.
Suzuki has again made the decision to place strings with the first choir and
woodwind with the second. Organ and bass are the basso continuo
Cast in a single movement the motet O Jesu Christ, mein’s Lebens Licht
Jesus Christ, light of my life
), BWV 118 requires a four voice choir and
an instrumental ensemble that not only reinforces the singing but is also used
independently. The orchestral playing from Suzuki’s players especially
in the instrumental introduction is exquisite. When the choir joins at 0:51 a
truly remarkable and inspiring effect is achieved.
Suzuki and his Bach Collegium Japan give wonderful accounts of these Motets
are as impressive as I have heard from any specialist performers on the early
music scene today. One is unlikely to hear finer and more disciplined yet affectionate
singing. I was especially impressed with their vividly clear and unfailingly
precise tones combined with a sense of vitality and reverential expression. Most
of all the unity of the chorus is remarkable. Suzuki’s period instrumentalists
deliver fresh, clear and colourful support. After working on a considerable number
of volumes for Suzuki the BIS engineers certainly know the Kobe Shoin Women’s
University Chapel inside out and aptly demonstrate their expertise with excellent
sonics. The sound is clear and detailed whilst leaving ambience together with
a superb balance. I played the hybrid SACD on my standard players.
Throughout Otto Kargl’s enjoyable performances I was struck by the splendid
singing of his two choruses: enthusiastic, committed and pleasingly in unison.
Closely recorded in the warm reverberant acoustic of the St. Pölten Cathedral
the congested sound is noticeable. Although the ear does become accustomed to
the sonics to a degree I felt I was not hearing Kargl’s singers and period
instrument players to anything like their best advantage. In the balance the
choruses dominate and it is hard to pick out individual instruments from the
custardy mass of sound. Again I played this hybrid SACD on my standard players.
Rubbing shoulders with these wonderful 2009 accounts from Suzuki there are two
alternative versions of the six Bach Motets
that I especially admire for
their conscientious detail and expressive humanity. There is the recording from
The Sixteen directed by Harry Christophers who recorded the Motets
the All Hallows Church, London in 1989. A particular favourite of mine is the
award winning release by Philippe Herreweghe directing La Chapelle Royale and
the Collegium Vocale on Harmonia Mundi. Recorded in 1985 at L'Église St
Gilles, Bruges, Belgium, I was greatly impressed by Herreweghe’s well-balanced
and clear sound quality.