The motets are a part of the oeuvre of Johann Sebastian Bach which
receives much attention as the extensive discography shows. They are
also frequently performed in concert and have found their place in the
liturgical repertoire. It is remarkable that they have remained in the
repertoire since Bach's death, unlike works such as the St Matthew
Passion or his Brandenburg Concertos. This can be explained by the
growing popularity of the genre and the emergence of a choral culture
in Germany, especially among amateurs, in the late 18th and 19th
centuries. In Bach's time the motet was not in vogue. Motets were sung
during the liturgy, but the repertoire was confined to pieces written
in the 16th or early 17th centuries. Later in the 17th century and in
the first half of the 18th hardly any new motets were written. Bach's
motets were also not composed for liturgical purposes but rather for
special occasions, in particular funerals.
Only in one case do we know when and for which occasion Bach composed a motet. Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf
dates from 1729 and was performed during the ceremonies around the
funeral of Johann Heinrich Ernesti, director of the Thomasschule and a
professor at Leipzig University. In this case we also know about the
way it was performed as instrumental parts have been preserved.
Instruments playing colla voce
was a common practice in the
renaissance and was still in use in polyphonic music of later times,
but usually not in funeral music. This could well explain that only in
the caseof this motet have instrumental parts survived as this seems to
have been a special occasion for which the rules were bended.
We know nothing with any certainty about the number of singers
involved. These motets were sung by the Thomanerchor but whether they
were performed with one voice per part, like the cantatas - at least
according to the theory of some scholars - is impossible to say. At
least Jesu, meine Freude
, with its episodes for three voices, seems to suggest a performance with solo voices.
Obviously there are many differences between the large number of
recordings in the catalogue. Some favour one voice per part in all the
motets whereas in others they are all sung by a choir. Hermann Max's
performance belongs to the latter category. In some cases instruments
are used in all the motets; in others no instruments are involved,
except an organ - and maybe a string bass - for the basso continuo. The
latter is the case here.
There are also some question marks regarding the authenticity of some of the motets. Some conductors omit Lobe den Herren, meine Seele
as it contains features which are considered unlike Bach. Max has included it, and has also performed Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn
which is in the appendix of the Schmieder catalogue as some scholars
attributed it to Bach's great-uncle Johann Christoph Bach (1642-1703).
Today most scholars seem to believe that Bach was the composer of this
motet after all.
Max always pays particular attention to
diction and delivery. This is one of the assets of this recording: the
voices blend perfectly and avoid vibrato which results in a great
degree of transparency. This allows the text to be always clearly
audible. On his own site
Max writes at length about important aspects of baroque aesthetics, such as rhetorics, Affekt
the role of harmony and the characteristics of the various keys and
their consequences for the performance. This recording certainly
includes some elements which are different from other interpretations
although in general the differences are not that radical. Many of his
insights are shared by his colleagues. It is in some details that this
recording is different: sometimes the choice of tempo, some dynamic
accents and the emphasis on elements of the text. One example is the
slight delay of the second "nicht" in Ich lasse dich nicht
; another the rhythmic freedom on "Furcht" (Jesu, meine Freude
: Trotz dem alten Drachen).
This is certainly an admirable interpretation, which is not surprising
considering the quality of the Rheinische Kantorei - whose members are
also excellent in the solo parts of Jesu, meine Freude
- and Max's great knowledge of German vocal music of the baroque era.
Even so, there are some elements which I find a little disappointing.
The first is that there is more legato singing than I had expected and
hardly any dynamic accents where I had expected them. There are many
words which are not singled out although there is every reason to. In
the chorales I would have liked a more detailed approach. Also
disappointing is that the indication that the second part of Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied
should be repeated to a different text has been ignored. The issue is not even mentioned in the booklet.
When all is said and done this is a fine recording and if you purchase
it you certainly won't regret the decision. It ranks among the upper
echelon of choral performances. However, as there are so many
recordings available - and I haven't heard all of them - it is hard to
make a choice and to express a clear preference.
Johan van Veen