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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750)
Motets
Komm, Jesu, komm (BWV 229) [7:29]
Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn (BWV Anh 159) [3:44]
Jesu, meine Freude (BWV 227) [18:22]
Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden (BWV 230) [6:23]
Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir (BWV 228) [7:59]
Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf (BWV 226) [7:13]
Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied (BWV 225) [11:56]
Rheinische Kantorei/Hermann Max
rec. 30 September-2 October 2012, chamber music hall of Deutschlandfunk, Cologne, Germany
Texts and translations included
CPO 777 807-2 [63:11]

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
http://www.musica-dei-donum.org
https://twitter.com/johanvanveen